Members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) select committee visited a south London-based food waste recycling plant yesterday as part of its inquiry into the impact of food waste in England.
The MPs, who have quizzed councils, celebrities and WRAP on food waste management in recent weeks, were told by Bio Collectors – London’s largest food waste recycler – that the major barriers to increasing recycling rates in England is the lack of segregation of food waste from general waste.
Inconsistent approach to waste management
In Wales, around 90% of local authorities collect food waste in a separate caddy, while in England less than a third do. In London alone, 15 of 33 councils still operate mixed waste collections. Data collected following the introduction of separate caddies for households has shown that the initiative can reduce the overall volume of food entering the waste stream as people become more conscious of what they’re throwing away.
Food waste is going up in smoke
The select committee members heard that mixed waste collections can only be sent to one of two places – incineration facilities or landfill – which are both known to damage the environment and are not classed as recyling. They were told that separate household food waste collections would benefit the economy and environment in the long run as, legally, the waste would have to be recycled through a process known as anaerobic digestion. This incurs lower gate fees than other disposal methods, as well as minimal emissions.
Long term contracts
More than 3.7m tonnes of food waste are not suitable for human consumption – including apple cores, banana skins and bones – and can’t be redistributed. At present, around 50 percent of this is sent to anaerobic digestion sites for recycling, with the remainder being incinerated or sent to landfill.
One reason is that many authorities are tied into lengthy contracts with waste management providers. Several waste partnerships in London are known to be on 20-plus year agreements with operators that run incineration plants and have invested in vehicles that are not able to collect two separate forms of waste.
The food waste debate
The impact of food waste on the environment is significant, with WRAP figures suggesting that unavoidable food waste from households and the hospitality sector is responsible for emitting around 561,000 tonnes of CO2e into the atmosphere.
Neil Parish MP, Chair of the EFRA enquiry into food waste in England, commented: “Food waste is unquestionably a major issue for England as a whole. It’s clear that we need to reduce the amount entering the waste stream in the first place, and that redistribution charities need to be supported where possible.
“However, the huge volume of unavoidable food waste must not be neglected and the EFRA Committee is quickly learning that the separation of food from other streams is the only way to build the circular economy and increase recycling rates in the country.”
Food waste and the circular economy
Bio Collectors, which runs London’s largest anaerobic digestion (AD) facility in Mitcham, hosted the select committee members, highlighting how its food waste recycling process can contribute to the circular economy.
The company processes unavoidable food waste in order to produce gas, electricity and a nutrient-rich fertiliser – known as digestate. It then sells energy back to the National Grid, while local farmers benefit from the byproduct, which is proven to enhance their crops.
Paul Killoughery, Managing Director at Bio Collectors, added: “The EFRA Committee members are rightly looking at all areas of the food waste debate. We support the redistribution of waste and ultimately the reduction of waste, but there will always be unavoidable food waste and it needs to be disposed of responsibly. This is not happening in England and we’re falling behind other areas of the UK, let alone Europe.
“Segregation is without doubt the key and can provide tangible results for the country. The select committee recognises this and we hope that new legislation will be brought in by the government very soon that will mean an end of food waste being sent to incineration and landfill sites.”