Responding to the shortfall in food waste collection

By James Samworth, Partner, Foresight  
Food waste is a topic of much discussion in 2016. Despite the Government’s recent 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.
But why bother?
There are plenty of benefits of separating food waste and transporting it to AD plants rather than the traditional approach of sending it to landfill or thermal treatment sites. Primarily, it is exceptionally cheap. The average family throws away close to £700 of food waste a year. The disposal of food waste costs London waste authorities £50 million per year, not to mention the fact that the capital alone generates around 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 from such waste. Sending food waste to an AD plant could save Local Authorities up to £50 per tonne compared to landfill or thermal treatment.
As well as the renewable heat and power generated by an AD plant, which can be sold to the Grid, the waste is turned into a nitrogen-rich fertiliser by-product ("digestate”) which is reused in agriculture. The carbon footprint of AD digestate is much lower than mineral fertiliser, which is typically produced from natural gas.
So, where are we really going wrong?
It goes without saying that all boroughs in London really 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 who are collecting food waste are doing so to the best of their ability.
Many boroughs which offer a food waste collection service do so only to residents with curbside properties. A staggering 80% of Londoners live in flats, immediately excluding them from participating in food waste collection schemes in many London boroughs. Whilst collecting food waste from flats certainly 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 are actually making use of the collection, so whilst the local authority is investing in a more environmentally and economically friendly scheme, they are still having to pay higher disposal costs for three quarters of their borough’s food waste.
A communications strategy is needed for those boroughs already offering the service. Due partly to the transient nature of London as a city (32% of residents in rented accommodation have moved in the last year and the majority move every two years), many residents are unaware that food waste collection options are available to them. Local Authorities also need to communicate the quality of the caddies and bins provided and their ability to seal odours so as not to become unpleasant in residents’ homes. Coupled with an increase in collection frequency, boroughs could quite easily begin to increase the number of residents making use of the service offered and any incremental costs should be more than outweighed by the reduction in disposal costs.
What is really key here is stronger regulation.  Currently 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, so much so that AD plants in Scotland are at full capacity and excess food waste is being hauled south to supply plants in northern England. Any business generating more than 5kg food waste per week in Scotland or Wales is legally obliged to separate their waste for treatment, and Scotland is set to abolish the option of landfill completely by 2020.
Further afield, the EU is set to introduce mandatory food waste collections in its revisions of the Landfill Directive. Whilst the document is still in draft form, the goal is eventually to achieve zero organics to landfill. Brexit or no Brexit, we simply must make sure that the intention of this Directive is implemented in UK law.
Reviewing the challenges of improving our approach to food waste it seems that stronger regulation should progress hand in hand with better education. Countries such as Denmark with its ‘Stop Wasting Food’ campaign and Germany with food waste recycling rates of 63.8% prove that this is not a pipe dream and we really can make a difference. 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.