Food waste is a hot topic. Despite the Government’s support for the construction of anaerobic digestion (AD) plants throughout the UK, one key piece of the puzzle is missing: not enough food waste is actually being collected.
This shortfall comes as a result of too few local authorities offering either a complete or partial food waste collection service, a lack of public awareness and education, and a missed opportunity in regulation.
The average family throws away close to £700 of food waste a year. The disposal of food waste costs London waste authorities £50m a year, not to mention the fact that the capital alone generates around 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 from such waste. Sending it to an AD plant could save councils up to £50 per tonne compared with other means.
As well as the renewable heat and power generated by an AD plant, the waste is also turned into a nitrogen-rich fertiliser digestate.
So where are we going wrong? It goes without saying that all boroughs in London should offer a partial, if not complete, food waste collection service, but at present only 18 of the 33 have prioritised this enough to make it happen. What we can do in the meantime is ensure that those boroughs collecting food waste are doing so as best they can.
Many boroughs which offer a food waste collection service do so only to residents with kerbside properties. A staggering 80% of Londoners in some boroughs live in flats, immediately excluding them from participating in food waste collection schemes. While collecting food from flats can present logistical problems, these are not insurmountable. With such a high proportion of residents currently missing out, more thought should be given to solving this problem.
Once a borough commits to the separate collection of food waste, the running costs are fixed. The borough is obliged to provide caddies, bags and collection services, whether the service is used or not. What is astonishing is that a mere one in four residences in boroughs already offering the service are actually making use of it.
A clear communications strategy is needed. Due partly to the transient nature of life in the capital – 32% of residents in rented accommodation have moved in the last year – many people are unaware that food waste collection options are available to them.
Councils also need to communicate the quality of the caddies and bins they provide and their ability to seal in odours. Coupled with an increase in collection frequency, boroughs could easily begin to increase the number of residents making use of a service. Any incremental costs should be outweighed by the reduction in disposal costs.
What is key here is stronger regulation. In England, the law states that, once food waste has been separated, it must be treated separately and cannot be remixed with residual waste to be sent to landfill. This is a comfort to those making the effort to separate their waste, but it is not enough. Wales and Scotland are leagues ahead – AD plants in Scotland are at full capacity and excess food is being hauled south to supply plants in northern England. Any business generating more than 5kg food waste a week in Scotland or Wales is legally obliged to separate its waste for treatment, and Scotland is set to abolish the landfill option by 2020.
Further afield, the EU is set to introduce mandatory food waste collections in its revisions of the Landfill Directive. While the document is still in draft form, the goal is eventually to achieve zero organics to landfill. Brexit or no Brexit, we must make sure that the intention of this Directive is implemented in UK law.
Stronger regulation should progress hand in hand with better education. Bio Collectors and WRAP with their respective ‘Just AD Food’ and ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaigns are just the beginning, and it is up to us as a community to respond.
James Samworth is a partner at Foresight Group