Appetite for change

Written by: Dean Hislop | Published:

From actively enforcing the waste hierarchy to simply encouraging companies, local authorities and households to recycle more, Dean Hislop, chief executive of Tamar, explains how the UK can better manage its food waste when EU targets no longer apply

All signs are pointing to things becoming more turbulent for waste and recycling firms in the UK, as the country’s march towards Brexit continues in 2017.

At the start of the new year, the Environment Secretary announced that a third of existing EU environmental regulation is unlikely to be carried over into UK law – that’s more than 250 current environmental policies that will fail to be protected. And many people fear that the remaining two-thirds that can be absorbed run the risk of becoming ‘zombie laws’ – legislation that can’t be amended, updated or enforced because the UK will no longer recognise the authority of the European Environment Agency or the European Commission.

This obviously has huge implications for the entire waste management sector, which could be faced with worthless or out-of-date environmental protections that don’t promote or enforce the importance of reducing, re-using and recycling waste. And nowhere is a robust, well-thought-out strategy more pressing than food waste.

We generate over 10 million tonnes of ‘post-farm-gate’ food waste in the UK, from what we buy in supermarkets and eat in restaurants. Of this, 40% is thought to be unavoidable, made up of meat bones, peelings, eggshells and the like. Shockingly, only a fraction of this is recycled in segregated collections – the majority gets sent straight to landfill or incineration. With the nation’s landfills predicted to be full by 2020, tackling food waste should be an increasingly urgent priority for government.

It’s no secret that budgets are being restricted and local authorities in Britain are under unprecedented pressure to save money. Cutting spending while maintaining service level provision seems a near-impossible task.

Indeed, reports of councils that are considering scrapping food waste collections to try and claw back much-needed funds are not unusual. But while this may offer some short-term gains, it misses a valuable opportunity.

That national recycling rates have recently fallen for the first time should serve as a wake-up call to local authorities against assuming recycling will naturally increase unaided. Evidence shows that investing a relatively small amount into raising awareness of household food waste collections can prompt a significant increase in collection rates, which then generates considerable waste disposal cost savings.

Low-cost tools

There are some noteworthy examples of authorities that are already capitalising on this.

A trial run by Somerset Waste Partnership with 115,000 households in 2015 saw food recycling rates leap by 20%. This was achieved by putting low-cost tools to work such as ‘No food waste’ stickers on refuse bins. It sounds basic, of course, but the council estimated this trial alone saved £51,000.

Similarly, distributing stickers and pro-recycling bin hangers proved successful for Gloucestershire Joint Waste Partnership, with one district increasing its food waste collection rates by a staggering 30% in just a few months.

These measures are disarmingly simple, yet cost-effective and clearly reap rewards. They also demonstrate that people really do need to be encouraged and reminded to recycle.

But they don’t need to do it on their own. Help in the form of guidance, materials and funding, such as that provided by WRAP, is available to encourage an up-take in food waste collections. Last year WRAP awarded South Northants Council a £30,000 grant to deliver stickers and leaflets to 37,000 homes. It also offers advice for authorities on how to set up food waste collections and meet their prescribed recycling targets.

But should targets for authorities effectively evaporate post-Brexit, there will be little to no incentive to promote, maintain or establish segregated food waste collections. We need to look to UK government to ensure the necessary legislation is protected and enforced at a national level in order to effect real change.

A resilient and effective strategy needs to be implemented to tackle the food waste issue.

At Tamar we’re clear that any food that can be eaten should be. A huge quantity of edible food is thrown away in Britain, which is not only wasteful but financially unsound, squandering hundreds of thousands of pounds for families and food businesses nationwide.

After this, for unavoidable food waste that can’t be eaten, anaerobic digestion (AD) has the capacity to take these scraps and recycle them into green energy and an organic bio-fertiliser.

There is, of course, the legislation already in place that prioritises food waste in this way – the waste hierarchy. But it is not enforced and is often easier for those tasked with waste management to fall back on landfill and incineration. Put bluntly, this is economically, environmentally and socially irresponsible, and stricter regulation needs to be put in place to discourage this practice.

The issue is exacerbated by the fact that food waste and, indeed, the wider recycling sector is not top of the list of priorities for the current UK government. And its importance could be booted even further down the do-to list should post-EU ‘zombie laws’ dictate its approach to environment and recycling. A squeeze on the public purse has already resulted in the curtailing of subsidy support for AD and similar waste recycling enterprises.

Many in the industry are fighting valiantly for these to be reinstated, but I’d suggest that this is not the positive long-term solution that’s required. A more joined-up solution in which local authorities, waste collectors and waste recyclers work together towards the same goal would see unavoidable food waste going to the lowest-cost recycling option. This would help to boost recycling targets and save money for cash-strapped local councils.

Competing agendas mean that the current system is too dysfunctional to achieve a positive recycling outcome for local councils that lowers the costs of dealing with our waste. Many who work for the local authority waste partnerships fully understand the issues. They know how to deliver long-term sustainable benefits, but sadly there is not the political will to back these as councils chase short-term savings to make the budgets add up.

Achieving greater consistency

WRAP’s Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling for England was released last year and was supported by experts from across local authorities and the recycling sector. It outlined the significant financial and environmental benefits of achieving greater consistency in waste management – predicting that around eight million tonnes of food waste alone could be diverted from landfill or incineration if the framework were to be adopted nationally. By failing to adopt this into legislation, the government missed a golden opportunity to mandate food waste recycling and enforce the waste hierarchy.

Following Scotland’s lead on recent regulation changes on recycling commercial food waste would only help further. Here, food businesses that produce just 5kg of food waste each week are legally required to recycle it. Although food businesses are not the biggest producers of food waste – that privilege goes to households – they still send significant tonnage of waste to landfill or incineration each year. Not only does this change in law boost recycling rates, but it encourages scraps to be re-used where possible too.

But change needs to be made by companies across the UK, and implementing stricter legislation on waste management would have a real impact on recycling rates among commercial kitchens and food producers.

Despite obstacles, the recycling and management of food waste is evolving slowly but surely. There are initiatives springing up both regionally and nationally to help tackle the growing problem, and success stories aren’t hard to find (see case study below). But to make real progress the UK government needs to get behind the waste hierarchy and introduce policies that genuinely enforce it. It also needs to ensure that Brexit doesn’t allow existing environmental legislation to become easily overridden or ignored in the future.

Local authorities must also recognise the importance of recycling in their communities and look at how they can boost food waste recycling provision. It’s not an easy task, especially with budget restrictions to consider, but there is assistance and funding out there. AD has an important role to play in helping to achieve recycling targets, and with the right support could bring about real change in the food waste industry.

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