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Time to get serious about food waste collection

Handbook food waste

When I wrote for the MRW Handbook 12 months ago, there was an air of optimism that Westminster had grasped the nettle and was set to assist the renewables agenda in its development.

But nothing could be further from the truth now as I pen this.

Since the general election, incentives for the renewable energy sector have been slashed, just as a head of momentum was building and deployment in anaerobic digestion (AD) was starting to make a useful contribution to the target of delivering 15% of the UK’s energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020.

In light of recent announcements such as the removal of pre-accreditation under Feed-in Tariffs, and lack of certainty about the future of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), investor confidence in the sector has been knocked sideways. In the past 12 months, AD deployment has seen significant growth, with 259 plants operational and 458 in development. As a result of the RHI support there has also been substantive growth in biomethane-to-grid projects, with 50 sites injecting by end of 2015 and another seven likely to inject by the end of March.

But we are starting to see disproportionate regulation rearing its ugly head again. There needs to be recognition that treatment of organics such as garden and food waste do not constitute a real threat to the environment compared with many other waste streams, and this area of waste management is not highly profitable.

Such local regulation has been compounded by the fact that Europe has a number of impending threats hanging over the biowaste treatment sector, including the Industrial Emissions Directive and the Fertiliser Regulations. At the time of writing, we are waiting for clarification on the impact of these on the UK.

If there is to be prolonged investment in new treatment facilities for biowaste, there needs to be confidence that the Government is serious about promoting the collection of food waste, and is prepared to mandate its collection in the same way that Scotland has done under its Zero Waste regulations. This Scottish initiative has seen capture rates soaring above all expectation.

WRAP has been working with a number of stakeholders including the Renewable Energy Association (REA) on the Food Waste Recycling Action Plan. This initiative is seeking to promote the collection of food waste from councils that currently do not collect it, and encourage those that do not collect food waste to do so. But with councils under significant financial constraints, this is a tough challenge and the REA is encouraging the Government to provide greater funding.

The REA has launched a campaign to highlight this issue and has more than 170 companies and individuals signed up. We urge the Government to take this issue seriously by imposing mandatory food waste collection schemes so that we can make better use of this valued resource.

There is a possibility that through the circular economy strategy from the European Commission, mandatory collection of biowaste or a ban on its landfill may be imposed. But it is unlikely to be imposed before 2025 because many other EU member states will require significant investment in infrastructure.

In the past 12 months, we have seen more authorities charging householders for green waste collections. At a time when England is struggling to meet its 50% recycling target by 2020 and with biowaste being one of the largest waste streams, such charging will inevitably lead to less participation by householders and mean a further reduction in recycling rates.

The Committee on Climate Change recently submitted a report which highlighted the plight of UK soils. Its report said there needs to be “firm measures” taken to preserve the fertility and organic content of agricultural soils and to achieve the goal for all soils to be sustainably managed by 2030. The use of compost, digestate and other agricultural residues has a vital role in achieving this objective.

There is much uncertainty challenging the sector, but it is resilient and innovative. The contribution of the collection, treatment and use of biowaste to the UK economy, environment and energy strategy should not be underestimated.

Jeremy Jacobs is technical director at the Renewable Energy Association

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