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UK’s reprocessors are hungry for more food waste

Seven million tonnes of food is wasted by UK householders like you and me every year. Despite the progress the UK has made with food waste recycling collections, most notably in Wales, more than 85% of it still goes to landfill or incineration.

Of course we should try to prevent food waste occurring in the first place. With campaigns such as ‘Love Food Hate Waste’, the UK is recognised as a world leader in prevention, and we have made good progress in reducing food waste from households by more than a million tonnes in the past few years.

But there will always be food waste that is unavoidable; with seven million tonnes still being produced, keeping it out of landfill and channelling it into recycling is an urgent priority. If we do not, it is also a missed opportunity. It could be recycled into quality compost or a nitrogen-rich fertiliser, produce biomethane for renewable electricity or transport fuel, help to grow more food, boost the economy and create jobs. It could also help the UK to meet the 2020 50% recycling target.

Earlier this month I was in Italy and had a taster of how the Italians tackled food waste. I was hosted by Azienda Milanese Servizi Ambientali, Consorzio Italiano Compostatori and the Montello anaerobic digestion (AD) plant, and joined a Milan collection round early one morning. The Italians are some way ahead when it comes to recycling food waste, but we can learn from their successes.

In Milan, a major initiative to drive up the recycling of food waste was launched in 2012. All properties in the city now receive a twice weekly separate collection of food waste and participation is very high – which is impressive when you consider that most households are in apartment blocks. The food waste is then sent daily to the Montello plant outside Milan.

I heard a lot about how the scheme is capturing more than 90kg of food waste per person, per year. That is much higher than we achieve in the UK, especially in a dense urban area. As a result, the recycling rate in Milan has gone from 35% to more than 50% in less than four years, and food waste accounts for 40% of their recycling. As for the financial benefits, the Italians claim that introducing food waste collections has also saved them money.

In the UK as a whole, we have less coverage of food waste collections than in Italy, where two-thirds of the population have access to a weekly or twice weekly collection. That said, nearly all Welsh households have a food waste collection, Scotland has been investing heavily in them and even in England around half of local authorities offer a food waste collection, be it separate or mixed in with garden waste.

There is no doubt that England could do with more food waste collections, but with what we have, we should be collecting much more waste. People seem reluctant to use their food waste bins. We know from focus groups that the ‘yuk factor’ is a serious deterrent. When we asked such groups what would persuade them to recycle food waste, some said they would only do so if they were compelled to.

That is how it works in Milan: it is mandatory and there are fines for non-compliance. But that is not really the British way. The success in Milan is not simply down to regulation – it is a great service that is easy to use and communicated well (in nine languages). We need to make it easy and acceptable for householders. That means a well-designed system with a kitchen caddy, liners and a small lockable outdoor bin – it certainly works where I live.

Such a system needs to be accompanied by good communication efforts that explain the benefits of food waste recycling and telling people how to use their system. I have a separate weekly food waste collection and, as a result, my main bin in the kitchen does not smell any more - in fact it now has hardly anything in it, mainly non-recyclable packaging.

My personal bugbear is the caddy liners: it is hard to find products that are good enough for the job. Good quality liners, at a reasonable price, would certainly help to reduce the ‘yuk factor’. Cutting back on communications or liners is a false economy. WRAP research has shown that such measures can have a significant impact, increasing the amount of food waste collected by more than 30%.

Running a collection service that is not well used is an extremely expensive way to collect a small amount of food waste. An ineffective collections service has a knock-on effect on the reprocessing sector, which relies on councils for a major proportion of its feedstock.

The treatment operators – the anaerobic digesters and the in-vessel composters – are now reporting a lack of suitable feedstock, which is it threatening the financial viability of plants and the significant investment associated with them. The UK has seen a huge growth in recent years in the number of plants that can produce quality compost, nitrogen fertiliser and biomethane from food waste. It would be a tragedy to lose those now.

So what can be done to improve the situation? The entire sector needs to work together to crack this because there is not enough dialogue between plant operators and local authorities. The success in Milan came from a partnership between the municipality, the waste collector and the Italian composting association.

WRAP is trying to drive such a collaborative approach across the system here. It is bringing together councils, waste companies, composters, AD operators and trade associations to establish an action plan for food waste recycling. The objective is to drive up the collection and recycling of waste by tackling the barriers we know of, identifying the ones we do not and finding new ways to overcome them.

When it comes to felling barriers, we know that communication is key. To boost this, WRAP is updating and adding to the ‘Recycle Now’ materials for food waste. It hopes to have these ready to be rolled out in areas with food waste collections later this year.

It is early days for the action plan, but since first announcing it at RWM, the steering group has convened and held a positive first meeting. Potential themes were discussed, including: communication to householders; ways to help improve existing collections; and alternative contractual arrangements to help fund collections.

There was a consensus that if all parties benefit from increased food waste recycling, then all parties need to be prepared to share the costs involved in making that happen.

Like so many things, working together achieves more. Much of WRAP’s work with other materials sectors is built around collaborative effort: Courtauld Commitment, Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, Electrical and Electronic Equipment Sustainability Action Plan and, most recently, Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan. Here we have seen the industry come together, with 30 supporters so far, and hope that the action plan for food waste recycling will follow in its footsteps.

The UK has the experience, the systems and the infrastructure to increase food waste recycling and the action plan is really just the start. During the next six months the steering group will shape and develop a ‘road map’ to maximise the recycling of food waste in the UK. The industry has made a great start, the steering group is engaged and enthusiastic, and I feel confident that we can successfully instigate real change in the sector.  

Food waste action plan

The inaugural meeting to prepare an action plan for food waste recycling was held in Birmingham, chaired by Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association and a former WRAP official. Sub-groups have been formed to explore the themes in more detail and will report back when the group reconvenes next month.

After the meeting, Georgeson said: “There was a real energy and enthusiasm from everyone in the room to work together to assess carefully where we have got to and then identify the important next steps to improve food waste recycling performance.”

Steering group members:

Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association; Andigestion; Agrivert; Association of Anaerobic Digestion Operators; Biogen; Chartered Institution of Wastes Management; Environmental Services Association; Kent Resource Partnership; Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee; Renewable Energy Association; ReFood UK; National Association of Waste Disposal Officers; Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council; Somerset Waste Partnership; Tamar Energy; Viridor; Waste Network Coordinators  

Marcus Gover is director of WRAP


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