Making Universal Food Waste Collections A Reality

Charlotte Morton, chief executive of the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA), assesses the next steps needed to allow all UK households and businesses to recycle their inedible food waste

On a cold Tuesday morning in December, it finally arrived. The recycling and waste industry had been waiting for the government to publish its Resources & Waste Strategyfor what seemed like an age, and amid all the chaos of Brexit it felt like it would never happen. But we finally have it, and there’s plenty to digest on the food waste front.

The headline announcement for the UK’s food waste recycling industry is a provisional commitment by government to legislate for universal separate food waste collections for all UK householders and ‘appropriate’ businesses from 2023, subject to consultation.

Why are food waste collections important?

This is a hugely important development in ensuring that the UK’s inedible food waste is recycled rather than being sent for incineration or, even worse, to polluting landfill. Only around a third of households in England currently have access to food waste collections, a shameful statistic for one of the wealthiest and supposedly most ‘developed’ nations in the world.

The government’s updated statutory Food Waste Hierarchy confirms that anaerobic digestion (AD, which recycles organic wastes into renewable energy and natural fertiliser) is the best treatment option for inedible food waste that is not suitable for redistribution to people or animals, but this cannot happen without separate food waste collections.

Only around a third of households in England currently have access to food waste collections, a shameful statistic for one of the wealthiest and supposedly most ‘developed’ nations in the world.

More importantly, the introduction of separate food waste collections in other parts of the UK has been accompanied by a decrease in the amount of edible food being wasted, as householders and businesses can see much more clearly exactly how much they’re wasting.

So there’s no doubt that the rollout of universal food waste collections stands to both reduce the amount of food wasted and allow inedible food waste to be recycled. But 2023 is a long way off, and our climate crisis demands that we take action to reduce emissions from waste as urgently as possible. So what needs to happen now for the rollout of food waste collections to become reality?

A meaningful plan and meaningful money

The first thing that needs to happen as quickly as possible is for the consultation on the proposals to be published so that industry can confirm its support for separate collections and set out exactly why they are so important.

We hope that the consultation will include a clear plan from government for rolling out separate collections that we evaluate and respond to. The government’s forthcoming Spending Review, due to take place this year, will determine when and how food waste collections will be introduced – so clarity is needed from this as soon as possible too.

There are around 70 local authorities with waste contracts up for renewal in the next three years, which presents a huge opportunity for these authorities to incorporate separate food waste collections into their recycling services.

The Resources & Waste Strategy suggests that funding for more extensive recycling services will come from Extended Producer Responsibility, and there’s certainly a case to be made for a tax on incineration in order to divert organic waste higher up the waste hierarchy.

But one of the principal barriers to food waste collections identified by local authorities is the upfront cost of introducing them, particularly at a time when council budgets are being stretched to the limit. There’s therefore a need for government to provide meaningful funding to local authorities long before 2023 to support them in introducing food waste collections as quickly as possible.

Given that the National Infrastructure Commission has suggested that universal food waste collections in England would save local authorities up to £400 million in capital costs and £1.1 billion in operational costs between 2020 and 2050, ensuring these are introduced as soon as possible is the lowest-cost option and will allow local authorities to start reaping the economic benefits of separate collections as soon as possible.

The Resources & Waste Strategy suggests that funding for more extensive recycling services will come from Extended Producer Responsibility, and there’s certainly a case to be made for a tax on incineration in order to divert organic waste higher up the waste hierarchy.

Effective communication and engagement

We know, however, that simply introducing food waste collections is only part of the solution to being able to recycle all of the UK’s inedible food waste. Providing households and businesses with food waste caddies does not in itself mean that they will necessarily use these facilities properly, if at all.

This is why it’s vital for government to support local authorities in running effective information and communication campaigns that will ensure high capture rates and minimise contamination from non-organic materials, in turn ensuring that food waste collections are cost-effective for councils. Consistency in waste collection systems across the country would also aid general understanding of what can and can’t be put in different recycling boxes and bins.

There is a potentially huge role to be played here by Ben Elliott, the government’s newly appointed Food Waste Champion. While his role will rightly focus on preventing food waste and increasing redistribution of edible food waste, I wrote to Ben recentlyurging him not to forget about the importance of inedible food waste being recycled through AD.

A high-profile figure like Ben could play a vital role in championing the need for separate food waste collections and in working with householders and businesses to ensure high capture rates and minimal contamination – just think of the public interest that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘War on Waste’ TV programme generated.

Taking action

The government’s commitment to universal food waste collections is a huge step in the right direction, but what’s clear is that there’s a long way still to go to make this a reality. What’s even more clear is that the realities of climate change mean we can’t afford to delay solutions like this that offer major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The food waste recycling industry will be working closely with government and others over the coming months to take forward the outcomes of the Resources & Waste Strategy and ensure that recycling inedible food waste becomes the norm rather than the exception sooner rather than later.

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