I meet Charlotte Morton, chief executive of the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association (ADBA), on a platform at Waterloo station on a freezing morning. We are
en route to visit the Malaby Biogas AD plant in Warminster, Wiltshire, and she turns up just minutes before our train is due to depart.
She arrives with ADBA policy manager Matt Hindle, carrying their rushed lunch. When we find a seat on our train, Morton tells me they have come straight from a meeting. She seems used to a schedule that races between meetings with the Government and major corporations and visits to small-scale AD developers and farmers.
AD is a technology and industry that seems to be on the verge of rapid expansion, with growing and serious interest and involvement from corporates such as Sainsbury’s and Veolia. At the same time, there are people like Thomas Minter from Malaby - a property developer constructing his first, medium-scale food waste plant - who represent the entrepreneurial spirit of the sector.
And then there is ADBA, a trade body less than three years old, headed by people connected by personal, business and political relationships, who say they knew little about AD before they got involved.
Morton herself seems to embody that synthesis of high-powered professionalism and pioneering idealism. She walked out on 10 years of corporate law because, she says, she just was not passionate about it. Morton was asked to help with legal work for ADBA while holidaying with its founder and chairman, former Liberal Democrat energy spokesman Lord Rupert Redesdale.
She says became chief executive “by accident”, after its launch in September 2009 and brought in a commercial director. Hindle is connected through the Liberal Democrats, where he was a parliamentary adviser and researcher. Within seven weeks, Morton had pulled off ADBA’s first conference and, in fewer than six months, its first trade show.
“Normally, you really would not want to do that from scratch,” she says. “And we had never done anything like that before. But we like a challenge.”
What did Morton know about AD before joining ADBA? “Not a sausage,” she admits. “I couldn’t even spell it.” But for Morton, this is not the disadvantage some might assume: “The good thing about that is, from the perspective of representing a whole industry, I’m completely neutral.”
She says that coming from a “dispassionate point of view” is an advantage that allows her to absorb information from the various parts of the AD industry and think strategically about how best to “maximise its benefits”.
The industry had a good year in 2011 in many ways, particularly with recognition from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) of AD’s potential contribution to renewable energy generation.
“Until then, we had been perceived as capable of delivering only small amounts, around seven terrawatt hours (TWh). But we thought that was way too little. Our view was to look at the available feedstock, at what we could deliver if the barriers were removed, so we were pleased when the CCC recognised our ambitions. And we’ve now got recognition that 37-40TWh is what we could achieve.”
And with that recognition, says Morton, the major challenge of finding investors becomes less difficult. But it also means the industry has to find ways around those barriers before it can get anywhere near meeting that 40TWh potential. The biggest barrier is the “liberation of feedstock”, as Morton puts it, the constant battle to find and secure the food waste and purpose-grown crops to feed each new AD plant.
And, like so many sectors in the waste and recycling industry, for Morton, feedstock liberation depends on source segregation of household waste.
“Something like 65 to 70% of our potential is in municipal solid waste and commercial & industrial waste. As long as we are not source-segregating that waste, we’re not able to extract the food waste or be able to deliver the biggest part of our potential. So that’s one of our top priorities.”
With the prospect of new European end-of-waste criteria that allows AD to recycle waste food nutrients back to the land only if the waste has been source- segregated, this is a vital challenge for the industry.
Morton says: “That’s why it’s really frustrating that we don’t have clear message from the Government on the value of this [food waste segregation].”
‘Frustration’ is a word Morton uses a lot, in particular when talking about government policy.
She is almost evangelical about the potential benefits to the environment and economy of AD - if only everyone else could see it.
Inevitably, we turn to communities secretary Eric Pickles’ bin fund. Morton takes a surprisingly conciliatory approach: “I understand his initial point - it was about service provision. There were clearly people who were getting a crap service. That’s wrong. But that’s not about type of collection.”
Morton would like to think the UK is shifting towards separate food waste collection. But she sees the spread of incinerators as a “really worrying” threat, “a criminal waste, when you look at the value of our waste streams”.
She recognises that waste contracts and infrastructure have been put in place to reflect Government policy and cannot be changed overnight. But now that there is widespread understanding of how best to use waste streams, she believes that waste management companies and local authorities need to begin to transition. Again, we come back to frustration with the Government.
She is scathing about the Government’s lack of “strategic vision” on waste, energy and environment, and possibly much more: “If you talk to any minister, you won’t find a single one with a strategic vision.
I see very little evidence of strategic thinking at the highest levels, and that’s very frustrating. A clear direction of travel wouldn’t cost them anything”.
It’s up to us to get people to love the name. You’ve got to be ambitious
For Morton this is much bigger than the AD sector, alone - it is about “protecting the UK’s interests”.
“We’ve got energy security and food security issues: those are not driven by the market. They are strategic issues where we need Government to take a lead. If the AD industry alone could achieve our potential, we could deliver 35,000 jobs in the UK. We could bring so many returns for the British economy.”
Later in the day, the taxi driver taking us from the Malaby AD site back to the station sums up another of the many challenges for AD. “The locals round here all think it’s a toxic waste dump”, he says putting on his best comic Wiltshire-yokel accent. “I don’t care what they say, it’s a toxic waste dump and we don’t want it round ‘ere.”
Morton’s well-rehearsed response is: “What would people rather live near: a clean, non-polluting AD plant or an incinerator? Or a landfill site?”
But recognises the need for better public education and says ADBA is working on communication. She does, however, reject the suggestion made by Dave Timson, head of waste at Sainsbury’s, that they should change the name of anaerobic digestion.
“It’s not ideal but it is the name of the process, and it’s a natural one,” she says. “It’s important for people to understand that. So it’s up to us to get people to love the name. You’ve got to be ambitious.