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Maximum value needs to be extracted from our waste

Lord Redesdale

The coalition Government has recently been wrestling with what we should do with our waste, an issue which should be inextricably linked with the value it has for UK plc. Work is well underway on the Waste Review and transcribing the European Waste Framework Directive into UK law, and there are various other consultations and policy projects.

However, this work does not look carefully enough at its value. Determining what value to put on waste should help decide what should be done with it, in terms of collection and treatment. The question is how to quantify this value. It is vital that, when assessing the value of our waste, we examine everything it contains to make sure we make the most of what is a finite and valuable resource.

There are enormous amounts of potential energy and nutrients locked up in the food waste that we throw away, for example. Estimates of organic waste across all sectors in the UK suggest it could generate more than 40TWh of energy through anaerobic digestion (AD), equivalent to more than 20% of the UK’s domestic gas demand. 

“Determining what value to put on waste should help decide what should be done with it”

But not all technologies are capable of realising this value. Pyrolysis, incineration and other energy-from-waste (EfW) plants are good for treating solid wastes but destroy the nitrates in food waste – so it is wrong for food waste to be sent to EfW plants. Composting recycles the nutrients but does not extract the energy. 

Commercial fertilisers are hugely energy intensive. Digestate can only be used as a valuable bio-fertiliser to replace commercial fertilisers if it meets the quality standards currently set out in BSI PAS110 and the Quality Protocol produced by the Environment Agency. To meet these standards, it is essential that food waste is source-segregated to remove contaminants. To date, however, the Government has shied away from directing local councils to segregate all waste at the kerbside.

Instead, the Government’s position has been that councils should have the option to collect household waste by any means they see fit and do what they like with it. As a result, we are missing out on an opportunity.

Councils were recently given the right to generate revenue by selling energy to the grid. By recycling waste rather than sending it to landfill, councils can now make their own contribution to the UK’s renewable energy and climate change targets, and reduce council tax bills at the same time. 

Currently councils are facing major cuts in their budgets and so are focusing on the cheapest options for kerbside collection, either not realising or ignoring the extra costs and benefits this could have further down the line in the recycling chain.

Clear direction from the Government on the need to, and benefits of, source-segregating household and C&I waste, as well as guidance on how it can be done cost-effectively to maximise benefits for all, would allow councils and waste firms to plan services and, through economies of scale, reduce the overall cost of procurement.

In the case of food waste, the cost benefit analysis should not stop at the point of collection. The value to the country of renewable gas would be huge in reducing fossil fuel imports.

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