Food waste businesses and the anaerobic digestion (AD) industry have many reasons to be optimistic now that the Government has confirmed it would take the EU’s circular economy (CE) package into domestic legislation.
This should mean England will follow the example of the other home nations and commit to introducing mandatory separate food waste collections by 2023, something the AD sector has been crying out for. But major barriers to separate collections are in the way – not least that many councils say they simply cannot afford to do it.
The UK is heading for a crunch moment: will the forthcoming resources and waste strategy support mandatory collections or not?
Earlier this year, the CE package was agreed by EU member states and it became binding from 4 July. Cheered by this progression, Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA) chief executive Charlotte Morton called on councils in England to prepare for mandatory separate food waste collections.
She said: “We fully expect the UK to implement these targets as an existing member of the EU.
“December 2023 is just over five years away, so local authorities in England need to start factoring the requirement for separate food waste collections into their plans, and use contract renewals as an opportunity to introduce collections at the lowest possible cost and with maximum effectiveness.”
In July, the National Infrastructure Commission’s long-awaited assessment of UK infrastructure called for ‘universal food waste collections’ in order to increase the amount of energy produced by AD. It said the move could avoid the need for 20 new energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities.
But AD should not yet be counting its chickens. The UK’s impending exit from the EU means it is not certain whether the CE package will be retained in its entirety. There have also been indications that resource minister Therese Coffey is not in favour of mandatory collections.
“While many forward-thinking nations have mandated the separate collection of food waste, district councils across England are still given the choice.”
England is the only home nation not to have mandatory food waste collections; last year in Northern Ireland, they helped to boost the recycling rate by five percentage points to 47.1%.
But many councils in England struggle to come up with the cash to introduce separate collections. In December last year, Defra chief scientific adviser Ian Boyd warned that converting all councils to separate food waste collections would cost up to £20m and “require a robust business case”.
A flashpoint has arisen in London over this issue, with Barnet Council planning to abandon food waste recycling on the grounds of cost. Collections cost the council £300,000 a year for around 5,000 tonnes, equating to £60 a tonne collected.
This is at odds with the Greater London Assembly (GLA), which wants all boroughs to offer food waste collections – including from flats – by 2025 as part of the London Environment Strategy (LES). London mayor Sadiq Khan has accordingly warned Barnet he will consider using his powers to prevent the council from implementing the plan.
Khan said: “I do possess, through the GLA Act, the backstop power to direct authorities, where I consider it necessary, for the purposes of implementing the municipal waste provisions of the LES. Moreover, waste authorities have a duty under that Act to undertake their waste responsibilities in such a way as to be in general conformity with the strategy.”
But council leader Richard Cornelius argued the mayor would not have the authority to use the powers because they can only be used when compliance by the authority did not lead to ‘excessive additional cost’.
Cornelius added: “Our recycling performance is already making a meaningful contribution to the LES target of 50% recycling by 2025, as Barnet is within the top third recycling London authorities.
“We have paused the cessation of the food waste service for six weeks, following a request from the mayor. We will be discussing the issues, and how those services he wishes London boroughs to deliver will be sustainably funded.”
Consider the bigger picture
Currently in London, more than half the boroughs offer a separate food waste collection service. In our report, Wasting London’s Future, we recommended a more consistent recycling approach across the capital, including separate food waste collections for all properties.
In Wales, a standardised recycling service with mandatory separate collections of dry materials and food waste has been integral to an increased recycling rate.
Inconsistency in recycling is very confusing to Londoners and we need a consistent approach to recycling across all boroughs. We know that inconsistency leads to poor recycling rates.
Just because the take-up of food waste recycling is not great in Barnet and the tonnage collected is not currently increasing, that does not mean the option should be taken away from residents.
Think of all the food waste that will end up going into people’s bins and then be incinerated or left to rot in landfill sites. If there is no option to separate food waste, how can you encourage people to get on board and change their behaviour?
Rather than cease its food waste collection, Barnet should be trying to remove the barriers that prevent residents from participating.
There is an urgent need for London to move ahead with separating food waste from residual waste. Boroughs like Barnet need to look at the bigger picture and change their outlook.
They need to get with the public momentum to be more environmentally aware. People want to recycle and we must make it easier for them to do so.
Caroline Russell Chair, London Assembly Environment Committee
Under Barnet’s proposal, food waste will go for incineration. It said the LES made it clear that incineration is “equivalent to AD” in terms of recovery.
Barnet is not the only council to bin its food waste collections. Wolverhampton City Council is ending its service, carried out by contractor Amey, because it is facing “huge funding reductions”.
The council said: “The food waste collection service is very costly (approximately £500,000 a year) and only used by very few households across the city, therefore, the council has taken the difficult decision to stop this service.”
Wirral Council has also ruled out setting up food waste collections. After being urged at a council meeting to press ahead with collections, cabinet member for environment Matthew Patrick said the authority could not afford it: “In Wales there is a government subsidy issued to councils because it is quite an expensive endeavour to go and collect this.”
According to WRAP, 123 local authorities in England currently offer separate food waste collections. While a steady stream of councils are announcing a reduction in residual waste collections in conjunction with introducing separate food collections, continued restrictions in local government funding means it is likely that many authorities will not want to follow.
Philip Simpson, commercial director at food recycler ReFood, is a long-time critic of the Government’s attitude to food waste.
He said: “Despite widespread commitment from industry on food waste reduction, including recycling and redistribution initiatives (mainly by grocery stores, hospitality businesses and food manufacturing sites), as homeowners we still landfill the vast majority of our food waste.
“While many forward-thinking nations have mandated the separate collection and recycling of food waste for a number of years now, district councils across England are still given the choice whether or not to provide food waste collections.”
The Government will need to make a decision before the end of the year on whether to carry on with voluntary food reduction drives, such as WRAP’s ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ and Courtauld 2025 initiatives, or plump for mandatory separate collections. If it does go down the mandatory route, councils will need to be given the financial backing.
Why the data is important
WRAP is producing updated estimates of the total food waste arising from UK households and collected by local authorities. Previous estimates have been made for 2007, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2015 but, as consumer habits and collection systems change, it is important to maintain and update this valuable resource for policy-makers and waste managers alike.
The analysis is based on waste composition analysis carried out on behalf of local authorities. The more analyses the researchers are able to take into account, the better the quality of the estimates will be.
WRAP is also aiming to produce estimates of other materials, including plastics and textiles, as part of the project. If sufficient information is gathered, it may be possible to undertake a full national waste composition.
To support this project, WRAP is looking to obtain as many council waste composition analyses conducted between April 2016 and March 2018 as possible. WRAP is asking waste managers across the four nations of the UK to share studies that have been carried out in their area during that period so that they can be included in the analysis.