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MARKETS - Organics

Guaranteeing contracts for feedstock remains a key challenge for the development of waste management infrastructure in the UK.

Labour’s announcement that they intend to ban food waste from landfill if elected in 2015 has therefore attracted a great deal of attention. From the perspective of the AD sector, the key question is whether this will increase the availability of food waste for existing and future plants, particularly given the severe budget cuts local authorities are experiencing.

Mary Creagh MP, Labour’s (now former) shadow Environment Secretary, explained at their September conference that a Labour government would ‘ban food from landfill so that less food gets wasted in the supermarket supply chain and more food gets eaten by hungry children’.

Although their focus is rightly on avoiding food waste and reusing edible food waste in the first place, little attention has been paid in this debate about how to better deal with unavoidable food waste and who will pay. Whilst separate food waste collections typically save councils money in the long run, they often require upfront investment which can be difficult for local authorities. From households alone, WRAP has estimated that 1.4 million tonnes of unavoidable food waste is generated each year – tea bags, egg shells & vegetable peelings, for example.

If such policies are to be successful, further work will clearly need to go into developing an effective timetable and supporting the development of infrastructure to deal with the increased quantity of segregated food waste available, including the cost of separate food waste collections, but the signs are nonetheless positive for the organics sector. It is building on increasing strength: the anaerobic digestion industry as a whole has grown by 43% in the last 12 months, and would be spurred on further if this policy was eventually introduced.

The coalition government has been lukewarm on introducing such a ban since their promise in the 2011 Waste Review to ‘review the case’ for banning biodegradable waste from landfill. In July 2013, citing that there were already European targets in place to reduce the proportion of biodegradable waste sent to landfill, DECC quashed calls from the House of Lords to include an amendment in the Energy Bill which would oblige the government to phase out organic waste to landfill.

As debates for the 2015 election start to take shape, the Liberal Democrats have voiced similar views to Labour. In an August policy paper, the Liberal Democrats stated that “the potential market for AD is substantial”, and argued that a ban on organic waste to landfill would directly support the sector’s growth.

Such a ban is certainly not an innovative idea on these shores though – as we have mentioned in this column before, Scotland has already pledged to ban biodegradables to landfill by 2020 alongside rolling out separate food waste collections. By the end of 2015 all Scottish local authorities (except those in rural areas) will be required to provide separate food waste collections.

From January 2014, all food businesses in Scotland (except those in rural areas) which produce over 50kg of food waste per week must present it for separate collection, while by 2016 food businesses which produce over 5kg of food waste per week must do the same. This is the sort of pragmatic timetable which could form a model for England to follow.

Northern Ireland has also just announced proposals to follow Scotland’s example. The plans would see councils and large food waste businesses required to introduce food waste collections by April 2016, with smaller food waste businesses required to present their food waste for collection by April 2017. From April 2015, any food waste which has been separately collected would not be allowed to be mixed with other waste or sent to landfill. Interestingly, under the current proposals rural areas in Northern Ireland would not be exempt from the requirements. Although Wales does not have a landfill ban, there are already high levels of source segregation for household food waste.

The debate on how we deal with our food waste is evidently moving forward across all regions in the UK. Developments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have left many with increased confidence that food waste will be treated further up the waste hierarchy, while the political debate over whether similar policies should be pursued in England looks set to hot up as we move towards the next general election.

Charlotte Morton, chief executive, Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association

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