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Policy makes AD sector fight for scraps

While the election result was not the outcome most political commentators expected, the stability it ensures has been welcomed by many business leaders and the wider global markets.

But the lack of action when it comes to waste and recycling in the last parliamentary term means it is not an outcome that can be fully welcomed by our sector.

The news that gate fees have fallen by £50 a tonne since 2013 makes scary reading for any anaerobic digestion (AD) plant operator. The problem is the fact that the Government’s stimulation for the sector, such as WRAP’s AD Loan Fund, has created intense competition for feedstock and has driven down costs.

Essentially, there are increasing levels of AD capacity coming on-stream, but this is not being accompanied by a correlating rise in the amount of food waste being captured for recycling. Without the two working in tandem, the industry is literally fighting for scraps.

And all the while, our UK neighbours are getting to grips with the reality of diverting food waste from landfill and the opportunities this represents.  

In England, the lack of similar guidelines means that some operators are turning to unsustainably low fees, which is clear demonstration of how desperate for feedstock some operators are becoming. Furthermore, in some cases, those with external funding are able to undercut landfill or existing gate fee levels.

This is not what such funding was awarded for and goes against the principle that the ‘waste producer pays’. Taxpayers’ money is, in some instances, being used to reduce the cost of disposal to retailers and food manufacturers.

For the waste and recycling sector, the prominence the SNP now has in Westminster could work in our favour. Scotland has been the pioneer of timely, workable and achievable zero waste regulations, particularly for food waste. Staged regulations in terms of timing and those affected have demonstrated that food waste recycling can be adopted even across a largely rural environment.

Food waste

Indeed, the need for the SNP to have influence over England’s waste policy will also be of benefit to its own zero waste goals. With zero gate fees possible by merely driving across the border, it is an attractive proposition for many collectors in order to maximise their own profit potential.

It seems ridiculous that companies with operations both sides of the borders are able to divert food waste from landfill in Scotland because they must, but are happy to send it to landfill in England – despite that fact that it is cheaper to recycle through AD than pay landfill tax.

With the news that Rory Stewart has been given the waste and recycling brief at Defra, industry will wait with baited breath to see whether this delivers any traction towards increasing recycling regulations or whether the policy will continue to rely short-sightedly on voluntary commitment. His previous political and professional experience does not give us much insight into where his focus and passion might lie.

If Defra continues on its previous trajectory, our industry will remain out on a limb with limited support, investment or strategic thinking to support its long-term growth and commercial viability. Furthermore, England will continue to fall behind its UK and EU counterparts and struggle to further improve on its already stagnating recycling rates.

Food waste is absolutely critical in order for recycling rates to increase – whether that is by recycling food waste or being able to recover larger amounts of it from the mixed waste stream due to reduced contamination.

So we continue to wait to see whether change is on the horizon. Most in the sector agree that a food waste ban is inevitable because it is such a critical part of the waste puzzle. Therefore, what is vital is that there is a long-term strategic plan in place to ensure that England has the capabilities to collect and process the millions of tonnes of food waste still going to landfill each year.

And that is where Stewart needs to join the party – the industry is already there.

Philip Simpson is commercial director at ReFood

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