One of the common frustrations among many of the councils I have conversations with is the generally low participation in food waste recycling services and the capture rates they achieve.
Normalising recycling as a behaviour has contributed to significant increases in recycling rates in recent times. Despite this, food waste recycling is still a bit niche for many, leaving capture rates stubbornly low and meaning that much of the available material is still disposed of in the residual waste stream.
Using waste analysis data from the past 18 months, food waste is on average 32% of the total refuse collected by a local authority. This results in a significant cost when it could play a key role in the UK reaching the EU’s target of 50% recycling by 2020.
Of course, preventing food waste in the first place is the ideal scenario and one that has benefited hugely from WRAP’s ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ campaign. However, the UK is producing vast quantities of food waste which needs to be moved from residual bins into a recycling stream, either at home or through available recycling systems.
Why do we have this situation? Let’s look at the material we are talking about: putrescible and out-of-date food which, in some instances, is not as simple to deal with as a plastic bottle.
I am sure we’ve all found a jar of something in the back of the fridge which is growing a coloured furry coating. The actions required and potential smells involved to deal with it can be quite a turn off, even for the most dedicated recycler.
But how can this be overcome? The waste management sector is not in a position to provide extra collection staff to scrape out mouldy cans of baked beans nor will re-processors take kindly to such packaging turning up in their material. But engaging with residents to show them both the benefits of proper food waste recycling, and how to make it easier, can go a long way.
Many councils are now promoting the use of plastics bags instead of corn-starch ones to line the kitchen food waste caddy, which has received a positive response and overcome a key barrier for some people.
But we need to help residents understand the value of their efforts and remind them that they are benefiting from reducing the cost of their waste and recycling services. So when they think “why am I doing this?” as they scrape out the mouldy contents of a forgotten leftovers tub, they have a clearer idea of the whole picture.
This is yet another in the lengthy list of reasons why the reduction in communications budgets by many authorities is a short-term benefit that will become a false economy. Without such gentle behavioural nudges that reinforce social norms, it is easier for people to forget about, or lose interest in, using services properly. There are so many pressures on each of us during everyday life that we need to continue to remind people why food waste is a problem and how they can be part of the solution.
In the same vein, while engagement with residents is crucial to an effective food recycling service, I do not believe it will yield maximum results while it is still so easy to throw food in with the refuse – after all, why have yet another container in the kitchen when there is plenty of space in the rubbish bin?
Suez was recently involved in a successful trial of three-weekly residual collections, coupled with a comprehensive recycling service, which helped the council in question to more than double the weight of food waste it collected. Similar experiences have been noted elsewhere, clearly demonstrating that we cannot expect food recycling to become the social norm while everyone has surplus residual capacity.
Consistent communications, coupled with a rethink of residual waste services offered to and by society, have the power to turn food recycling into a social norm.
Perhaps neighbours will notice if someone is not putting out their caddy for collection – and wonder what they are doing with the waste instead.
Sarah Ottaway is Suez’s municipal recycling manager