Food Waste: The Issues with Collection & Recycling
Food wastage is a concurrent global issue that currently works as a significant detriment in the fight against climate change. However, the gravity of the situation still largely lies outside of the realm of public discourse as a result of a lack of awareness and education regarding the correct practices and most sustainable solutions involved in the disposal of food waste, in addition to broadly impractical levels of supply and demand in supermarkets and across the hospitality sector.
Incredibly, over 50% of all food produced globally goes to waste. The UK, meanwhile, produces the highest amount of food waste across Europe with 9.5 million tonnes accumulated in a single year. This is an especially troubling statistic when you consider that 8.4 million people in the UK are considered to be in food poverty.
Food wastage can be separated into two distinct categories – avoidable and unavoidable. Avoidable food waste can be attributed to overproduction, supply-chain issues, excessively high standards in quality and eat by dates. This is the category that needs addressing by the food and retail industries at large.
Many of the UK’s leading brands have begun to introduce initiatives to help negate the issues of rejected fruit and vegetables in their stores, including ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ by Tesco; ‘Naturally Wonky, Naturally Wonderful’ by Morrisons and ‘Too Good to Waste’ by Lidl.
Unavoidable food waste is centred around food that is considered not fit for human consumption, such as packaged food waste and by-products like fruit peels and trimmings. This is where the responsibility falls to the general public to properly segregate, collect and process food waste in a manner that instead creates valuable by-product while minimising greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding contamination.
The primary concern of food waste under either category is that the vast majority ends up in landfill sites, contributing heavily towards global warming and the erosion of the ozone layer. Food waste releases significant volumes of methane as it breaks down which, according to a report by the EPA, is 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide because it can trap heat within the atmosphere.
In 2018, the UK Government outlined its Resources and Waste Strategy, which pledged to introduce separate collections for household food waste in the UK by 2023. According to DEFRA minister, Lord Benyon, separate food waste collections are the ‘biggest contributor’ to reducing waste emissions.
The Environment Act 2021, meanwhile, comes into full effect this year. It was drawn up by the UK government post-Brexit and aims to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, increase recycling and reduce plastic waste.
The Resources and Waste Strategy will see a ban on the use of macerators, an unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly practice involving machinery that utilises high-speed rotational blades to chop up food waste and flush it into drain systems using high volumes of water. The ban will also apply to liquidising digesters which use enzymes and large quantities of hot water to turn food waste into mush before discharging it into sewers.
For businesses and households across the public and private sectors, the strategy can be largely summarised by three key points –
As is ever the case with large-scale change, the UK Government’s legislation for New Waste Management Strategies has raised its own concerns with the general public, establishments and other concerned parties.
Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of household food waste will need to be disposed of in-line with new regulations, in addition to more commercial food waste entering the market. The UK’s infrastructure currently struggles to deal with the contaminants produced by businesses and households, and this could be stretched beyond capacity as supply and demand increases. As a consequence, we will likely need to invest heavily in additional facilities and more efficient systems to allow our infrastructure to cope.
A principal component of the New Waste Management Strategies is the use of AD plants in order to process food waste. These plants turn organic materials into biogas, a highly versatile renewable fuel that is used to power vehicles, generate heat and can be fed into the national grid to fuel homes and businesses.
A briefing published back in May 2022 from the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) looked at the financial and ecological impact of sending food waste to landfill and how this can be resolved by treating it through the AD process instead. The association pointed out that AD and its by-products, which also include biomethane, bio-CO2 and biofertiliser, would decarbonise local economies and contribute to financial savings of up to £1.8 million.
Contamination of waste streams, however, still presents a significant issue. Large quantities of food waste from supermarkets contain plastic packaging, while significant levels of contamination are common in household collections.
Most AD plants use a wet process, which is designed to process food waste and agricultural waste streams, and a de-packager at the start of the process. Between 15-30% of what arrives at the plant is removed by the de-packager, so disposing of the run-off in landfill sites and through incineration still presents major financial and ecological implications.
Huw Crampton, food waste expert at Tidy Planet, argues that the key is preventing leftover food from becoming food waste. WRAP’S food and drink material hierarchy, widely used across businesses in the food and drink sector, was developed as a model that sought to minimise the impact that food waste has on the environment, ranking the various approaches to waste management in order of primacy.
However, the model is arguably in-line for modernisation in light of recent changes to the Environment Bill, and currently presents a level of disparity between “prevention” and “waste”. This is the point where materials are sent off-site to be processed by a third party, but many sites are actually overlooking a key solution when it comes to food waste.
Facilities Management Teams can prevent “waste” from being produced by converting it into compost at the source, thereby turning “waste” into a valuable resource through the process of composting. It is when leftover food is transported off-site for disposal that it starts contributing towards a carbon footprint.
One alternative solution to AD plants is decentralised composting, a process that effectively fosters decarbonisation and closed loop recycling. This process has gained traction in Europe with Les Alchimistes, a France-based social enterprise, who have been conducting this approach for three years.
After finding success with a conceptual pilot project in 2017, utilising Paris’ disused underground car parks as composting sites, the organisation was able to expand its initiatives nationwide with support from the French Government and EU funding.
Decentralised composting sites process lower volumes of food waste, meaning the distance that food waste loads travel from producer to processor is often minimal. This leads to decreased carbon emissions, in addition to providing citizens with a clearer line of sight in regard to how and where their money is invested into local food waste management. As this process relies on a hand-separation process for contaminants, it also generates local employment opportunities, encouraging a sense of community collaboration.
While AD plants generate a renewable energy source in biogas, decentralised composting produces a nutrient-rich resource which keeps soil healthy for growing produce. In turn, contributing towards a circular economy, improving carbon sequestration and providing food security nationwide.
Following on from the claim from Defra minister, Lord Benyon, that separate food waste collections are the biggest contributor to reducing waste emissions and achieving zero waste to landfill targets, £295 million of capital funding is being distributed to allow local authorities in the UK to implement free weekly separate food waste collections for all households and businesses across the country.
Lord Benyon said the UK Government had been engaging with local authorities as it develops how to allocate funding, with the Environment Act 2021 enabling them to place specific requirements on local authorities for separate food waste collections.
The environment in many older and densely developed communities, however, could pose significant obstacles in allowing local authorities to provide separate food waste collections on a weekly basis, as per the requirements laid out by the Environment Bill. For those without frequent access to a vehicle, access to collection points could also be restricted.
Providing effective communal food waste facilities for those in flatted accommodation often remains a challenge. Re-London is one such initiative which has sought to improve waste and resource management in the capital. As part of the project, 35 metroSTOR FX Food Waste Bin Housings were introduced across four Lambeth housing estates with the aim to increase resident participation in recycling and reduce the amount of food waste sent to landfill. The 13-month pilot scheme resulted in an average 152% increase in recycling rates, with an impressive 45% reduction in food waste within the residual waste stream.
These figures were partly achieved through incorporation of the metroSTOR FX, alongside the communications programme put in place. The use of pedal-operated bin housings was considered a major factor in capturing an average of 35% of all food waste, a higher proportion than typically achieved with curbside properties.
The metroSTOR FX was developed as a food waste bin housing with the purpose of providing solutions to the growing problem of recycling food wastage in communal settings. The product has been designed to assist local authorities in increasing separate collections of food waste for multi-family properties, often in flatted accommodation, where individual waste caddies are not a practical option.
Handling food waste bin lids is a prominent factor that can discourage use. The lid of the metroSTOR FX is designed specifically to enable touch-free operation and ease of access by ensuring the container is kept enclosed as soon as food waste has been deposited. This function also helps to limit odours and other undesirable side effects associated with food degradation.