2021 to herald biggest change in biowaste market in recent years

With mandatory food waste collections now on the horizon decisions need to be made about collection and treatment. WRM Director Ben Brown considers what this means for the coming year

The next 12 months will herald the biggest changes in the biowaste market since the development of Quality Protocols setting out how recovered materials could be reused or supplied into other markets, without being subject to regulatory controls.

The spring will see the publication of Defra’s updated Resources and Waste Strategy for further consultation and it will confirm many of the policy changes that will deliver major changes in the way we deal with waste.

A shift in position on mandated separate food waste collections, an increase in the volume of material on the market and the question of technically, economically and environmentally practicable (TEEP) assessments, are all on the cards for 2021. The year ahead will also see the adoption of new technology and consolidation in the sector.

And while predicting what lies ahead remains as likely to result in embarrassment as ever, there’s no getting away from the urgent need for the industry and local authorities to respond.

Increased flexibility

If we consider first the mandated separate collection of food waste for all local authorities as set out in the first draft of Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy, there has since been a notable shift in position. It follows input from a consortium that sought to challenge the implementation of policy which did not acknowledge the range of collection and treatment options which might be better suited to individual authority regions.

As a result, the updated Resources and Waste Strategy draft set to be published in the Spring, is likely to include a shift towards allowing comingling certain waste collections such as food and garden wastes, enabling local authorities to provide a service that best serves the needs of their individual communities while still achieving the environmental gains that underpin the Strategy’s objectives of diverting organics from the residual waste stream.

Consequently, it is likely that for some local authorities at least, full TEEP assessments will not be necessary, with relevant guidance provided instead. Furthermore, the strategy will refrain from self-selecting a preferred treatment technology, allowing the market the freedom to innovate and provide solutions that best fit with the needs of each local authority.
Running out of time

If we now consider some of the implications in the context of the current timescale which means that food waste collections will be mandatory for all local authorities from 2023, it is clear that 2021 brings with it an urgent need to understand the preferred collection options and treatment solutions. Those that already collect food waste may well still need to undertake a TEEP assessment to define the best solution. 

Given that the procurement process for a design, build and operation (DBO) contract is likely to require at least 12 months and a similar period or longer needed for the construction of treatment infrastructure, suddenly 2023 seems extremely close. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say time has effectively run out.

Adoption of Dry AD

Gearing up for long term biowaste procurement contracts and preparation for mandatory food waste collections must inevitably therefore, be a major focus in the months ahead – solutions must be identified. And as this work gathers momentum, it seems clear that 2021 will see rising interest in, if not the development of, alternative treatment technologies and facilities. 

Greater flexibility regarding comingled collection of garden and food waste will drive the adoption of new technologies, such as Dry AD, and as local authorities explore the procurement routes, market operators will by necessity need to undertake feasibility works to explore the deployment of such treatment technologies.

Ultimately Dry AD, which is suitable for comingled garden and food waste, may facilitate the shift to more cost-effective waste collections in some demographics while still delivering environmental gains through renewable energy production and reducing the bill to the taxpayer.

An opportunity for real advances

Indeed, with every local authority in the country required to make collections on a weekly basis, and consequently more material on the market than ever before, spare market capacity will be filled bringing increasing opportunities for the development of new technology and infrastructure.

2021 is therefore the year in which the sector will have its greatest opportunity to prepare for real advances. The timescale in which this change needs to be achieved however, presents a very significant challenge.

And there is a risk that we will see a situation not too far beyond 2021, where the number of local authorities trying to procure the same solution, at the same time, will simply exceed availability and that this situation will play out acutely in areas with an absolute lack of capacity. In that scenario, some local authorities will inevitably find it is not possible to procure a competitive, or best value solution for their catchment.

These are not the only factors at play which will influence the implementation of new collection and treatment solutions.

Market consolidation to continue

Already we have seen a number of operators in the organics waste treatment market walk away. Inevitably, not all have the appetite or available capital to invest in expanding facilities to the degree which the years ahead will require.

The implementation of tighter regulations across the biowaste market will only see this consolidation continue as smaller independent operators, for whom the higher value contracts set to become the norm, simply carry too high a contractual risk. Inevitably some operators will sell while others will be reliant upon sub-contracting to larger organisations.

Driving positive change

The Resources and Waste Strategy is undoubtedly a driver for positive change. After a decade of policy vacuum, it represents the biggest opportunity for advances in the sector in many years. But the only way in which we can hope to achieve its objectives is by recognising the immediate urgency of the response required.

We can expect the Spring consultation and subsequent update of the Resource and Waste Strategy to reflect an increase in the flexibility that will facilitate this response which is essential if collection authorities are to achieve the best value solutions for their residents, allowing for the many inherent variables in designing a wate collection and treatment service.

And whether the final publication follows within the calendar year or not, 2021 and beyond will be a time of extraordinary challenge for those procuring new solutions and those tasked with bringing new capacity online to treat all the material that will be captured.