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Feature: Food for thought

In just four years, the East London Community Recycling Partnership (ELCRP) has picked up a host of awards, come within two hours of going bust, ducked and dived its way around some regulatory issues and successfully fended off attempted commercial sabotage. So who said composting was boring?

Founded in 2001 by six individuals and comprising a number of organisations which "co-operate to provide a service greater than the sum of its parts", ELCRP is also a member of the Community Composting Network and the Community Recycling Network plus a number of local organisations.

"We were all doing our own recycling thing in a small way and felt we could do more collectively," explains the effusive composting project manager Cam Matheson.

There are now 20 organisations within the partnership arrangements, ranging from Sound Radio to a small bicycle repair and rebuild organisation. It was the first body in the UK to be approved by the Environment Agency for the Bokashi/Rocket System, developed for dealing with food waste including cooked meat and fish and at the heart of a project that now services six blocks within two estate groups.

The kitchen waste project was first trialled in January 2004, six months after the Animal By-Products Regulations (ABPR) were published and supplement chutes at each landing area, leading down to large bins in the building basement were installed.

"In fact we are indebted to our local Environment Agency who allowed us, subject to constant monitoring and data provision, to trial the equipment outside the strict terms laid down by DEFRA," admits Matheson.

This could have come back to haunt them when a former board member reported ELCRP but, says Matheson, by then the body "was through stage one of the ABPR and was operating legally".

It was not the first scare.

ELCRP had come within two hours of going out of business until £11,000 was transferred into the company by an associate business.

"When you go to the banks and grant bodies and say we have all these approvals and certificates pending and we need finance they say 'that's fine, come back when you have your approvals'. But you don't struggle to get money by that point, you need it at the beginning," recalls Matheson.

The company has founded its approach on close links with local tenants' organisations on the estates where it operates and its recycling shop is staffed by volunteers from the local associations.

These links have resulted in an 86.4% initial take up of its food waste composting project on the Nightingale Estate in Hackney and 34 tonnes of waste collection in the first full 10 months, including three tonnes of cardboard which has helped to stop the chutes becoming blocked.

While the prospect of keeping food waste in an apartment is not, on the face of it, very attractive for residents, ELCRP gets around this by using a fermentation system to arrest putrefaction.

The residents are supplied with a 10-litre bin with a sealable lid, corn-starch biodegradable liners and a small bag of bran Bokashi plus a strain of yeast/micro-organisms that dramatically inhibits the rotting process.

The sealable lid not only prevents flies and maggots entering the food waste, it also provides a good growing environment for the fermentation organisms.

"There is a huge effort needed to persuade people who quite naturally have the perception of all the negatives of storing rotting food," says Matheson.

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