Time to take measure

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

Amidst the chaos created by Brexit, food waste isn’t likely to be top of the new Defra secretary’s ‘to do’ list. But there are still targets to meet, warns David Burrows

MPs in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee have launched another inquiry into food waste in England. Is it me, or have we had our fair share of these already? The EFRA Committee has previously investigated waste as part of its report on food security, while the Environmental Audit Committee and the House of Lords EU Committee both demanded urgent action to tackle the UK and EU’s mountains of food waste.

Efforts to reduce food waste are “fragmented” and “untargeted”, they concluded. Retailers must do more to redistribute edible goods and rein in on BOGOFs that tend to generate more waste, they said. Separate collections and a ban on landfilling food waste would make a considerable difference, they noted.

That all makes sense, so why launch another inquiry? After all, with each day that passes, the 2020 target to recycle 50% of household waste becomes less attainable and more missable. Nothing has changed. And yet, thanks to June’s referendum, everything has changed.

“Brexit means Brexit,” the new prime minister Theresa May has confirmed. But it will be months before we know what exiting the European Union really means for the UK – let alone the resource sector, efforts to tackle food waste and future legislation.

Much depends on whether the UK maintains access to the single market or withdraws from it. If it’s the former, we are likely to remain subject to all the requirements of the Circular Economy Package (CEP) of regulations, including mandatory separate collections of biowaste.

Withdrawal would be more complicated. “If that happens, then it’s likely that Defra will freeze all existing requirements and then over time decide which ones to change,” explains Jacob Hayler, executive director at the Environmental Services Association (ESA).

The prime minister doesn’t want to start Brexit talks until next year, which means there is also a possibility that CEP could come into force before our divorce is complete. In that scenario, the most plausible move from Defra would be to freeze existing targets (such as the 2020 ones pertaining to recycling and landfill diversion) but take on “none of the new stuff”, says Hayler.

So, it is not yet clear whether we will need to hit 50% by 2020. What is clear is that food waste needs to become a priority if we are to get anywhere near that level.

Mandatory separate food waste collections combined with fortnightly residual waste collections could add 6% to local authority recycling rates, according to calculations by SUEZ. (They would also be essential to reach the 70% by 2030 target some are looking for in the CEP).

But consider: recycling rates in England have fallen by 0.7% (to 44.3%) and just one in two UK households currently receives a food waste collection (see chart on page 20). Is there political will to take this on? To date, in England at least, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.

Low on Defra’s priorities

Roll-out of new services has increased by just 1% a year since 2014 (incidentally, the same year there was the aforementioned flurry of political inquiries). Defra has an increasingly laissez-faire attitude to waste policies and the department’s new boss, Andrea Leadsom, has her hands full appeasing British farmers as they leave the comfort of Europe’s subsidy regime.

However, in an ideal world she should be aligning some of the agricultural and waste policies in a bid to cut pre-farm-gate waste. Of the 15 million tonnes of food waste in the UK, 20% occurs on farms. That’s a pretty rough estimate, according to WRAP, which is currently trying to provide a more “robust” figure, including the waste created overseas for food that is imported.

Celebrity chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall did much to expose the grim reality of production-phase waste in Hugh’s War on Waste series on BBC One. “Watching 20 tonnes of freshly dug parsnips consigned to the rubbish heap in a Norfolk farmyard – purely because they didn’t look pretty enough – is still one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen,” he admitted.

Ugly veg has since become de rigueur, with major supermarkets launching new ranges. The marketing men will say they are acting responsibly and saving customers money (imperfect products are cheaper). Cynics might say they are just making a quick buck from the latest fad. Somewhere in between there is the argument that supermarkets are acting before politicians do.

To date, voluntary agreements have been the go-to tool to encourage businesses to tackle food waste. The Courtauld Commitment has helped cut household waste by 15% since its inception in 2005. The Hospitality and Foodservice Agreement never really got going before it was swallowed up by this year’s new super-agreement: WRAP’s Courtauld 2025. And just recently, WRAP published a new Food Waste Recycling Action Plan to improve the capture and quality of food waste.

But are these enough? WRAP declined to comment, but campaigners have long thought not. What’s more, there is a feeling that (increasing numbers of) politicians are beginning to listen to them. Voluntary measures have been decent ice-breakers, Piotr Barczak, a spokesman for the European Environmental Bureau, said recently, “but for real change, we need a proper obligation”.

MEPs take up the cause

Ferran Rosa, a policy officer with Zero Waste Europe, says support for food waste legislation is certainly “gaining momentum” in Brussels. MEPs have voted strongly in support of laws to end unfair trading practices by supermarkets, for example (the subject of Fearnley-Whittingstall’s first programme), while the European Parliament’s environment committee wants a food waste reduction target reinstated into the CEP.

The Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association has been a keen supporter of obligatory food waste collections and higher recycling targets. But MD David Norman doesn’t believe all the parliament’s demands will be met. There are several obstacles, he explains.

First, countries with low-value waste infrastructure (the south and east) see food waste collections as being financially too onerous and socially too difficult. Others, like England, seem to take the position of being against anything that “smacks of Europeanism. Three out of the four UK nations have adopted, more or less, exactly those [food waste policies proposed] without EU legislation – because they make financial and environmental sense,” says Norman.

Second, there is the question of infrastructural maturity. “Take Germany,” he continues. “It now has food waste collections almost everywhere, [but] it will resist targets that underutilise its waste-to-energy infrastructure.”

Third, politicians still “do not get” that food waste collections are manageable, cost-effective and actually popular. The case of Milan shows they are wrong, says Norman: 1.3 million inhabitants with door-to-door

food waste collections twice weekly; an 87% interception rate and 97% purity rate; and all “without one cent increase in costs”.

In the UK, a report by the Renewable Energy Association published in May concluded that “in most scenarios, separate food and other biowaste collections can save local authorities and businesses money”.

For authorities where weekly residual waste collections are currently in place, a move to weekly separate food waste collections and fortnightly residual waste could typically save “between £10-20 per household per year”, REA said, without any other changes to the waste and recycling system.

Economic reasoning could help sway some. But arguably the waste hierarchy, introduced through the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011, means councils should be separating food waste anyway. The law requires waste producers to take “all reasonable measures” to apply the hierarchy and “there is good reason” to think that separating food waste is such a reasonable measure, REA noted.

The optimist’s view

That hasn’t been the case. Could parting ways with the EU bring new waste legislation? Some certainly think so.

“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Brexit is that the

British government now has the autonomy to set its own waste recycling targets,” says Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood. “Free from the shackles of EU red tape, Defra has a critical role to play in setting such targets and can help Britain to implement waste management laws at a far greater speed.”

That’s an optimistic (some might say Panglossian) view – the UK was keen to water down CEP targets and make them voluntary. A Food Waste (Reduction) Bill also seems to have been binned after it failed to manage a second hearing.

The bill’s proposals, put forward by Labour MP Kerry McCarthy, focused on the waste created by supermarkets. France and Belgium have recently passed laws that require supermarkets to enter into formal agreements with food redistribution charities, explains Jess Twemlow at consultants Ricardo-AEA.

Italy is considering passing a similar law and a number of countries have also set their own food waste reduction targets, including France (50% by 2025), Sweden (20% by 2020) and Scotland (33% by 2025). The French law is “not exactly the most ambitious”, but it shows how it is “possible to act”, adds Zero Waste Europe’s Rosa.

That food waste spans environmental, economic and social issues has certainly helped boost its profile.

Anomaly of the times

Nearly 100 million tonnes of food is wasted across Europe every year, and yet 800 million people worldwide go hungry every day. “This is a paradox of our time that is no longer bearable,” said Italian MEP Simona Bonafè recently.

Indeed, it is statistics like that – rather than greenhouse gas reductions and fiscal savings – that have caught the eye of politicians and policy-makers. Redistribution of edible food has in turn shot up the agenda and shunted anaerobic digestion to one side. AD was a firm political favourite not so long ago, but the sector has been receiving some unwanted attention of late.

The fact that government policy incentivises food waste recycling, but not redistribution, is a particular concern.

FareShare, the food redistribution charity, has been redoubling efforts to secure a “level playing field” with AD. The ability to create green energy from food waste is a “wonderful thing”, says the charity’s director of food Mark Varney and “we support the financial incentives [to do that]. But the same incentives do not currently exist for businesses that redirect their surplus food to charities.”

This often means it’s cheaper to throw food away or recycle it than to provide it for redistribution. Supermarkets and manufacturers have admitted that AD is the most cost-effective option for them, says Varney. Many manufacturers quote total cost of £50 to £60 per tonne, for example.

Factoring in transport and other costs, food firms would need a tax break in the region of £100 per tonne for food redistribution to compete with AD, he adds.

He wants the UK to look seriously at what France has achieved. Its well-publicised new laws have managed to swing the pendulum in favour of redistribution.

The supermarket sector’s bible, The Grocer, is also backing reforms: “We’re calling for government to incentivise industry to redistribute edible food and ensure we get our priorities right,” it states in a new campaign.

What does the AD sector think? Matt Hindle is head of policy at the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association. “If you look at the figures there is plenty of food waste to go at,” he explains. Only a fifth of the 10 million tonnes of post-farm-gate food waste currently ends up in AD, suggesting there is a lot more available to both recycle and redistribute (inedible and edible respectively).

Like Varney at Fareshare, Hindle is very keen to highlight the importance of both redistributing and recycling food waste. Neither is spoiling for a fight, but both feel the current approach isn’t working. “The government should be looking at legislative approaches,” says Hindle.

What’s the betting that the EFRA committee tells us much the same thing?

David Burrows is a freelance writer

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