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The big push

Five years ago, anaerobic digestion (AD) was a new waste management technology to the UK, despite being a staple of European waste management policies. This spring the UK will be proudly showing off state-of-the-art facilities capable of managing half a million tonnes of organic waste every year, which will contribute towards meeting targets for diverting organic waste from landfill, creating renewable energy and stimulating the UK’s green economy.

Earlier this week, Staples Vegetables in Boston, Lincolnshire, one of the biggest producers of vegetables in the UK, became the first AD project funded through the Environmental Transformation Fund to open in 2011. Processing out-of-specification and by-passed vegetables, every output from the technology will be used to benefit the business and reduce cost. The digestate will replace inorganic fertiliser, heat will be captured for offices, heat absorption coolers will chill the processing areas and electricity generated will power the plant.

Staples marketing director Vernon Read explains: “The project will provide integrated power generation, giving us control not only over the future pricing of power but also over power security.”

And with four new AD facilities opening across the UK this spring and more than 30 in the planning stage, it is fair to say that AD is now well on the way to being a tried and tested technology for the treatment of food waste in the UK.

As a sustainable technology, it has won approval and secured confidence from across the industry, the Government and consumers. High-profile advocates of the technology include Prince Charles; Jonathon Porritt, former chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission; and supermarkets Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. And thanks to increased awareness about food waste, AD is a growing part of the solution among councils and retailers.

Oxfordshire County Council was one of the first to view AD as crucial to its waste management strategy. The county’s Waste Partnership, which includes prime minister David Cameron’s constituency of West Oxfordshire, undertook a thorough review of its waste management when developing its joint waste strategy. The review encompassed all six local authorities, and implementation of the strategy has delivered a step change in recycling performance across the county.

For the first time this now includes weekly food waste collections from all households across Oxfordshire. More than 40,000 tonnes is collected from residents and processed within the county at either an in-vessel composter (IVC) or an anaerobic digester, both built and managed by Agrivert. The facilities also offer a service to treat local commercial wastes, bringing the total tonnage processed to more than 75,000 tonnes a year.

Oxfordshire council head of waste management, Andrew Pau is pleased with the technology: “It has taken time to get to this stage, but I can honestly say that I’m delighted with the quality of service that Oxfordshire Waste Partnership offers residents in terms of a sustainable waste management solution. Both the AD and IVC facilities were part-funded by WRAP, and Agrivert provides a very good service at a very good price. We have delivered real environmental and financial benefits through this contract.”

Food waste travels a maximum of 25 miles to reach the facilities and, currently, the outputs are sold to local farms, further benefitting a local, closed loop solution for the county’s organic waste.

Agrivert commercial director Harry Waters adds: “The project’s environmental credentials should not be understated. The AD plant alone generates electricity to power 4,200 houses, captures more than 4.5 million cu m of methane a year, most of which would have been emitted as a greenhouse gas, and produces an excellent fertiliser.”

With ever-increasing interest in the technology - not just as a sustainable solution to organic waste but also a profitable business - AD, like any new technology, has not been without its teething problems. Financial market confidence, quality of digestate output and security of feedstock supply are some of the challenges faced by AD businesses. During the past two years, WRAP has worked with trade associations, the Environment Agency and industry partners to identify ways to reduce and remove the risks at all stages of the process. One example is the development of the PAS110 and AD Quality Protocol, launched in 2009, which jointly categorise the digestate as a ‘product’ and no longer as a ‘waste’.

With so many facilities currently in the planning stages or due to open this year, combined with increasing interest in food waste solutions from retailers, businesses and councils, the market is looking increasingly buoyant.

There are still hurdles to be overcome, particularly in terms of investment in the current economic climate, but both WRAP and the Government are committed to working collaboratively with the waste industry, local authorities and investors to address these issues. Instilling further confidence in the technology and ensuring the quality of service expected by customers at all stages of the supply chain is crucial.

WRAP director of market development Marcus Gover believes the market, including investors, developers and end users, should be confident that AD is a reliable, safe and profitable resource efficiency process.

“Along with industry and Defra, WRAP has taken significant steps to de-risk the technology, developed robust tools to help break down the barriers and facilitate confidence at all stages of the process,” he says. “And householders benefit too. As an Oxfordshire resident myself, I’m impressed by the way my local authority is running weekly food waste collections.

“AD is a growing part of the resource efficiency solution, capable of reducing biodegradable waste sent to landfill, creating renewable energy, stimulating the green economy and improving the sustainability of commercial agriculture. We really see it as huge opportunity for the UK.”


Support is available for start-up AD facilities, from business advice to funding. The trick is to know where to look.

  • WRAP’s eQuip scheme is designed to assist businesses operating in the recycling sector, including AD. EQuip helps companies to acquire the recycling equipment they need through a lease. As eQuip guarantees a residual value for the assets, the cost of lease payments can be reduced.
  • Quality outputs are key to the viability and long-term sustainability of a business. WRAP offers two days of specialist consultancy support to assist with certification to PAS110 and the AD Quality Protocol, enabling AD operators to offer an industry-recognised quality specification for their digestate products. The consultancy support is offered via the Biofertiliser Scheme run by Renewable Energy Assurance.
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  • Organics and plastics recycling businesses looking to take off, that have already developed a robust business plan but are struggling to secure the investment required, may be eligible for WRAP’s Accelerating Growth Fund. It has strict criteria and a thorough procedure for eligibility. But if your business is ready to start but lacking invest- ment, the AGF may be worth investigating.

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