It is difficult for local authorities to know what to do with food waste. On the one hand, it is commonly accepted that food needs to come out of the waste stream to get recycling tonnages up and residual waste down. But implementing a food waste collection at the kerbside is notoriously costly, and in these times of austerity with Government cuts looming, there is a chance that many local authorities will be unable to afford it.
So are there other options available? Wiltshire County Council has been encouraging its residents to use home food waste digesters since 2007 and it says the scheme has been very successful. Head of waste management Andy Conn explains that it provides a straightforward and inexpensive alternative to kerbside food waste collections.
“We came to the conclusion that we shouldn’t do a kerbside collection for two reasons,” he says. “The obvious one was cost, and we worked out it would be several million pounds a year.
“This is because Wiltshire is a large land area and the population is spread out, so the number of vehicles and crews you would need to get round all the people just is not feasible. We could not combine food waste collection with our existing recycling services because of the way they were carried out, so we had an affordability problem.
“We also came to the conclusion that food waste is one of those wastes people can do something about themselves. You can minimise your food waste or you can treat it. So we decided that we wanted to offer residents an alternative to binning their food waste.”
As a result, Wiltshire council entered into a contract with Great Green Systems (GGS), formerly known as Green Cone, to provide its products - food waste digesters known as Green Cones and Green Johannas - to residents. GGS managing director John Cockram is keen to stress that these food digesters are different to home composting systems.
“It is part of our tool kit now and I would very much like to keep it that way”
“With a composter, you can only put in certain types of food waste and this has to be mixed with garden or green waste,” he explains. “With a Green Cone and a Green Johanna, you can put in all types of food waste, cooked and uncooked, bones and raw meat. The Green Cone does not produce compost - it just digests the material. The Green Johanna is slightly different in that you can add garden waste to it as well and it will produce compost, but it is primarily a food waste digester and not a composter.”
The way Wiltshire council works with GGS is that it promotes the use of the digesters to residents and if anyone wants to purchase one, the council subsidises the cost. This means residents can get a Johanna for £25 or a Green Cone for about £20, which is a lot less than the recommended retail price of around £70.
Conn explains that, since 2007, the council has continually promoted the use of digesters to residents through its website and in various leaflets and publications, and he is pleased with the uptake so far.
He says: “Since 2007 we have sold nearly 4,000 units, which works out at roughly 100 a month. We have got 200,000 households in Wiltshire, so we think that around 2% of our households are engaged in doing some food waste digesting using one of these systems. About two-thirds of the units that are sold are the Johannas, which do garden composting as well, and these are particularly suitable for this area. We see it as a fairly long-term, steady process, so we hope that more households will take it up.”
And there are plans already in place to increase the use of the digesters in the county. GGS launched its ‘Community by Community’ scheme there in July this year and has already had a lot of interest.
Cockram says: “We have written to different community groups in Wiltshire such as gardening clubs, the Women’s Institute and sports clubs to ask them to promote digesters to their members. If they sell any units to their members then we, as a company, will donate £2.50 to a charity of their choice for every unit sold through them. So far, we have got about 40 groups signed up in Wiltshire, which is great considering the scheme has only just launched.”
The council has also partnered with housing associations to try to get more people to use digesters. Conn says: “We have done a bit of work with one of the major housing associations to get some units to some of its tenants. Quite a decent amount of people took it up, and we have been in discussions with other housing associations to drive this up.”
It is impossible to tell to what extent the use of food waste digesters has been a success in diverting food waste from landfill across the county but, as Conn explains, residual waste has fallen.
“We do know that our overall waste tonnage is coming down. It has been coming down each year for five years out of the last six, but we can’t attribute all of that improvement to what we do around waste minimisation because, obviously, there is a recession on,” he says. “But what we do have is some composition survey information that does not suggest our food waste is going up as part of that. We haven’t got a complete picture but we do have some indications that food waste is being reduced.”
Conn adds that Wiltshire has no plans to introduce a kerbside food waste collection scheme at present: “The cost to the council of a scheme like this compared with a kerbside collection [of food waste] is marginal. We worked out that if a family used a food waste digester consistently for about five years, then the council has got its money back in terms of saving on landfill costs and landfill tax.
“I know not every family is going to use one consistently, and there are some risks involved, but then again everything you do in waste carries a risk.”
Cockram agrees that the cost saving element involved in using a scheme like this has got to be good news for councils. He says: “Wiltshire is not the only council which has had success with this. Guildford in Surrey has also had a positive response when promoting digesters to its residents.
“I think that more and more local authorities will look to systems like this as a solution for dealing with their food waste because of budgetary constraints which will prevent them from introducing kerbside collections.”
Conn certainly believes it has been a good decision for Wiltshire: “The residents appear to be happy with it, our councillors have regarded it as a positive thing and I am very keen to keep it going. We would like to have sold more digesters and to have spread the message across the county more than we have done, but there is always a limit to what we can achieve and the sales figures have kept up through quite a difficult time. It is part of our tool kit now and I would very much like to keep it that way.”
And with an endorsement like that, perhaps more local authorities will consider putting organics recycling into the hands of their residents too.