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Why is England failing on food waste?

Almost two million tonnes of commercial & industrial food waste in the UK is still going to landfill or other unknown destinations.

Duncan Mclaren 2000

Duncan Mclaren 2000

And despite the fact that an estimated 85% of all the UK’s food waste arises in England (Eunomia 2016), only Scotland, and Northern Ireland are tackling the problem of commercial food waste.

Scottish regulations demand that businesses keep food waste separately from other wastes. This means that not only can food waste be collected, processed and converted into energy, but other waste streams such as plastic bottles and cardboard packaging are no longer contaminated with food and can be recycled into new items instead of being thrown into landfill or incinerated.

Northern Ireland and Wales are closely following Scotland’s lead but England is slower off the mark. Currently, the Government has no plans to enforce mandatory food waste collections in England despite the evidence that it is commercially and environmentally viable.

Separating this waste stream is not difficult. It simply requires separate bins and separate collections. Even the process of converting food waste into energy is a time-old process that has been around for millennia.

Anaerobic digestion (AD) occurs in the natural environment and is the process by which microscopic bugs convert organic material into methane gas. This process happens every day inside the stomach of animals such as cows, but can be replicated in a large-scale industrial process.

The renewable bio-methane gas is captured and either cleaned up and injected into the country’s natural gas network or used to run an engine to create renewable electricity and heat. Just as with cows, there is by-product from the process: a non-digestible fibre which can be spread on to farmland as replacement for man-made fertilisers.

With such a simple and effective solution already in existence and food waste collections already working in parts of the country, why is the Government reluctant to back it in England?

In fairness, some support has been given to promote the construction of AD plants. Europe’s Renewable Energy Directive was introduced to challenge member states to produce a percentage of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. The UK’s target is 15% and, in an attempt to meet this target, the Government has provided some funding via the Renewable Heat Incentive and the feeding tariff systems.

However, after a good start, the levels of funding have been reduced to the point where investors are reluctant to build – and, after all, why should a food waste problem be funded by electricity and gas consumers?

So it is left to the food producers themselves to do the right thing, and lots of them are responding. National restaurant, pub and hotel chains are starting to tackle the problem of segregating food waste in their kitchens and are working to make sure that it gets collected and taken to AD plants for processing.

To make it easier for them, companies such as Olleco have set up national collection services to ensure that weekly collections of food waste by specialist waste collection vehicles happen regularly and efficiently.

In addition, traditional waste companies are starting to respond to demands for food waste collections. But, clearly, the new service does not sit well with companies that have invested heavily in fleets of traditional compaction vehicles, along with landfill sites which inefficiently collect landfill gas or incineration facilities that rely on contaminated waste that can only be wastefully burnt.

Replacing these old business models takes time, as does the building of collection networks and AD facilities, all of which rely on large volumes to deliver a cost-effective service.

Only when everyone in the country is segregating food waste and having it converted into renewable energy and digestate will the scale of the service be delivering value for money. It will also be the right thing to do.

This brings us back to the need for regulation. England needs to follow Scotland and introduce rules that demand food waste be segregated and collected separately. When it does, we will see a rapid improvement in the amount of waste products that are recycled and zero food waste being thrown into landfill sites or incinerators.

Such actions will not only future-proof our reliance on energy for generations to come but it will be necessary for the country to meet its 2020 renewable targets and those beyond it.

Duncan McLaren is Olleco’s national accounts director

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