Defra recently published its final progress report on the work that industry and the Government have delivered as part of the Anaerobic Digestion (AD) Strategy and Action Plan.
Launched back in 2011, almost all of the 56 actions have been completed. The report highlighted the progress that has been made in the sector, with the number of plants more than doubled and installed electricity capacity being four times what it was in 2011.
In addition to electricity, there has been a rise in the number of gas-to-grid AD plants coming into operation. The sector is providing two of the UK’s energy objectives in terms of renewable energy and biodiesel.
But there is still more potential: the capacity of the 140 sites totals more than 950,000 tonnes, while the amount of food waste ending up in landfill is still more than six million tonnes. The challenge is getting to the remaining 40% of the food waste produced in the UK which still ends up in landfill.
So it was a real disappointment for the industry to see that the main political parties continue to avoid taking a stronger stance to ensure that food waste is diverted from landfill and used in ways that maximises its potential as an energy resource. The benefits that can be delivered from a growing AD sector are massive, not only for the environmental sector but for the whole UK economy.
We are fuelling an increase in jobs across a range of operations and offering skills-based training for engineers, drivers, sales teams and much more. Our businesses are providing the Treasury with taxes, as do the people we employ. After facing so many years of high unemployment, the potential to bring jobs, especially to rural areas, should be welcomed and supported, not hindered, by those in power.
We need greater recognition that banning food waste from landfill has many long-term benefits and will play a role in helping the Government to achieve a number of its objectives, be those across industry, waste, energy or employment.
Nor should the importance of the so-called by-product of the process, the digestate, be overlooked. As everything going into an AD plant is ‘natural’ matter, digestate is therefore highly beneficial in the growing of new crops because it is returning significant levels of organic matter back to the soil. It is also replacing oil-based or manufactured fertilisers by eliminating the need for mining of minerals and therefore offers a highly sustainable alternative.
ReFood has launched its own PAS 110-accredited digestate brand, ReGrow. A great deal of work was done with farmers to run trials of ReGrow and prove its worth as a commercial and domestic fertiliser product. With its high levels of key nutrients, including nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, ReGrow can typically double yields if it is applied as part as a comprehensive crop strategy.
What should concern the industry is the call for the Government to press for changes to EU regulations to allow the AD of sewage sludge and organic waste alongside each other. The issue with this is that we are currently able to close the recycling loop because the end product of AD from food waste can be used on crops.
But if co-treatment is allowed, we believe the opportunities for using the valuable recovered nutrients as a fertiliser for growing new food products will be destroyed through the association with human waste and sewage. The EU regulation places the safety of the food chain as an obvious priority and this must be maintained.
It is clear the AD industry is enjoying a period of strong growth. But to maintain this and achieve our full potential, it needs the full support of all producers of food waste and those creating future waste policies – whoever that may be come the general election.
Philip Simpson is commercial director at ReFood