Front line of organic change: An interview with David Newman
Resource talks with David Newman, Managing Director of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), about his quest to clean up food waste and get compostables into the mainstream
To achieve real change, sometimes you need to speak a little louder: “Anybody that knows me knows that I am very vocal against the plastics industry”. Indeed, anyone that knows David Newman will know there isn’t much he isn’t vocal about. That assertiveness has been central to Newman’s position at the forefront of the drive to promote the return of organic carbon to soil through treatment of organic waste in composting and anaerobic digestion (AD) and compostable bioplastics in the UK and Europe.
Born in south London and raised in Australia before returning to the UK for school and university, Newman’s life has taken him to Italy, via Jordan and back to the UK, leading organisations such as Greenpeace Italy, the International Solid Waste Association, the World Biogas Association and now the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA).
Newman spent 12 years working with Greenpeace after making friends with one of the founders, David McTaggart – “I was gobsmacked to find out he was living a couple of miles from me” – after moving to Italy in 1985 following nine years with paper trader Bunzl.
While the transition from a well-paid job in trading to environmental lobbying may not seem like a traditional career path, Newman took to it like a duck to water, getting a call from a consortium of companies – the Consortium of Italian Composters (CIC), now the Italian Consortium of Compost and Biogas – to set up what is now a world-leading industry association in terms of quality of composting and AD in the late 1990s.
This was Newman’s first foray into the infant composting industry and what he left behind when he returned to the UK in 2014 was world’s away from the sector that in his own words was “winging it” in the early 2000s. He entered the sector at the time of the closure of landfills in big cities like Naples and Milan, which forced municipalities to think carefully about reducing residual waste. “Milan overcame that by quickly introducing segregate collections of waste,” recalls Newman. “We realised the opportunity for food waste, because food waste in Italy was and still is the largest municipal waste stream at 35-40 per cent – now some 6.5 million tonnes.”
The development of food waste and composting grew quickly, but not without its issues. Contamination was prevalent, especially of plastic, which was in some cases more than 15 per cent. “You simply can’t deal with that amount of plastic. It stops the biological process and it becomes hugely expensive to get it out and dispose of it,” Newman says.
As part of his work with CIC, Newman lobbied the Italian Government to introduce legislation to strictly limit contamination, with a law introduced that said composting had to last for 90 days to allow the material to stabilise and ensure a quality product. Then, in 2010, a law was introduced that said all food waste had to be collected ‘naked’ – without a container – or in a compostable container, which, along with the will to enforce it by Italian authorities, dramatically cleaned up feedstocks being received at composting facilities.
“Councils were fined and penalised for not meeting quality standards with their collections, and composting facilities sent back heavily contaminated feedstocks as they could also be fined for treating what would have been ‘mixed waste’,” says Newman. “So if you have a system whereby you have sticks and carrots, and not just carrots, you can impose virtuous behaviour.”
Italy is now an exemplar of how to run good food waste collections – when Newman left in 2014, the national average organic feedstock contamination rate was four per cent – and produce quality outputs in the form of clean compost and digestate, which means “you can start thinking about the end product having a benefit and a market, rather than just being a consequence of treating waste”.
Fundamental to Italy’s success was the removal of plastic bags from the food waste stream, an issue that will raise its head again as EU countries – including the UK – are obligated to introduce separate collections of food waste to every household by 2023.“Many countries will use plastic bags to collect food waste and it will lead to widespread contamination of soil with plastic fragments,” says Newman. “Even percentages of plastic contamination in compost and digestate that we consider within PAS 100/110 as acceptable means some 10 to 30 kilogrammes of plastics per hectare are put to soil. It is fundamental that collection systems use either no bags or compostable bags.”
Newman entered the world of bioplastics in a bid to replace plastic bags with compostable ones – he lobbied for yet another law in Italy in 2011 that made it mandatory for all single-use shopping bags in Italy to be compostable – and to replace certain plastic packaging with bio-based, compostable alternatives.
Despite early hostility, including from criminal gangs illicitly importing plastics into Italy – “We got threatening phone calls, I got spat at at a meeting, we got menaced, we had to put double locks on our office. The bioplastics thing was touching on interests that we in the waste industry didn’t quite realise” – Newman’s commitment to the cause was undiminished. In 2015, he set up the BBIA and returned to the UK, which he sees as a “key influencer” due to the country’s status and huge agricultural feedstocks.
The UK plastics industry remains resistant to the encroachment of bioplastics, despite the growing concern over the impact of mismanaged plastic waste on the environment, something Newman is critical of. “The problem with the plastics industry is that for 70 years we have been putting materials onto the market without any regard for what happens to them at their end of life,” he says. “Why don’t plastics companies become change agents themselves rather than thinking that change is an enemy of their business?”
Newman doubts that that change is going to come through recycling, given the falling price of virgin plastic and uncertainty surrounding recyclate: “I don’t quite know what’s in the recyclate. If I’m making food content material, and I’m using a recycled plastic that’s had pork in it, what am I going to tell my Muslim and Jewish customers? What am I going to tell my vegetarian customers?”
However, Newman asserts that compostable plastics can be “disruptive” and should be brought in for certain applications “where it makes sense for those products to go back through the food waste system” such as tea bags or food caddy liners. He concedes, however, “labelling, branding and collection systems all need to be perfected” to reduce consumer confusion over how these materials should be recycled, given current difficulties over distinguishing bioplastics from conventional plastics.
The government is certainly listening to the bioplastics argument, having recently released a consultation on standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics, and Newman is confident that further progress will be made: “We are part of that jigsaw puzzle.”
For Newman, prevention is a key piece of the puzzle. Conspicuous by its absence in the Resources and Waste Strategy and the voluntary UK Plastics Pact, which both set ambitious recycling targets for plastic packaging, Newman calls for a firm legislative hand. “Obligatory targets enshrined in prevention are absolutely necessary. If we leave it to voluntary industry agreements we will be tinkering around the edges and people will carry on with business as usual.”
That goes not only for manufacturers and retailers, who Newman feels should be taking the lead on reusable and refillable packaging – “Why the hell do you need to buy a new bottle of shampoo? Just take the shampoo bottle back and fill it up.” – but the waste and resources sector too, no mean feat he admits: “Getting the waste industry to move rapidly is like trying to dance the tango with an elephant. It’s a very cumbersome industry. The waste industry isn’t going to change unless it’s forced to.”
That change will not come easily, but we stand on the precipice of a vast shift in our relationship to waste and resources, and wherever it takes us, you can be sure Newman will be on the front line.