Let’s not leave doorstep food waste collections to rot

Dean Hislop, Chief Executive of Tamar Energy, urges local authorities to maintain or expand food waste recycling services, rather than making short-sighted cuts that could result in long-term pain.

Let’s not leave doorstep food waste collections to rot
It’s a worrying statistic: recent figures reveal that household recycling rates in England have fallen for the first time since records began. As part of this, organics recycling, which includes household food waste, saw an unprecedented 5.7 per cent drop. There’s every indication this will push the UK further away from the EU target of 50 per cent recycling by 2020.

Some suggest that this fall is, at least in part, due to increased pressures on local authorities in England to curb spending. In fact, some authorities have already reduced or removed food waste collections altogether in an effort to try and cut costs. This is understandable given the seemingly near-impossible task they have of making savings whilst maintaining core service level provisions. However, there’s a real danger here that a perceived short-term gain will cause long-term pain.

It’s been shown that investing a relatively small amount into raising awareness of household food waste collections can prompt a significant increase in collection rates. This, in turn, has the potential to bring about considerable waste disposal cost savings.

Let’s not leave doorstep food waste collections to rot
WRAP food waste communications
In February, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) launched an updated food waste collection guide for local authorities that gives advice on boosting recycling rates, offering recommendations on cost-effective tools to help do this. This is accompanied by a suite of communications materials to help encourage households to get more involved. These resources can offer councils a low-cost and proven way to boost food waste collections. Campaigns don’t have to be far-reaching or cover whole counties – they work best when targeted at areas with low recycling rates.

There are already plenty of really good examples of how local authorities have boosted their food waste collections. A recent trial by Gloucestershire Joint Waste Partnership saw one district increase its collection rates by a massive 30 per cent since September 2015. They did this with simple, low-cost measures such as ‘No Food Waste Here’ stickers on every residual waste bin, and eye-catching bin hangers explaining how food waste is recycled.

Similarly, Somerset Waste Partnership saw a 20 per cent boost in food recycling last year after using similar methods in a trial of 115,000 homes, saving £51,000. And with the help of WRAP funding, South Northants Council has rolled out a campaign that is aiming to save money and push the authority towards an impressive goal of 60 per cent recycling.

But in order to really unlock the financial benefits of food waste collections, authorities need an effective, viable food waste recycling option. And this is where anaerobic digestion (AD) can play a part and offer considerable benefits.

AD works by using naturally-occurring enzymes to break down organic waste, including food and garden waste, in airtight (anaerobic) conditions. This process creates a biogas that can be converted into a baseload (24/7) supply of renewable energy. It also creates a nutrient-rich biofertiliser that can be used instead of more expensive, petro-chemical-based alternatives that are damaging to the environment. 

Let’s not leave doorstep food waste collections to rot
Together, AD plants across the UK have the capacity to power many thousands of homes from food waste and could meet 10 per cent of domestic gas needs, which reduces reliance on burning imported fossil fuels.

AD is a central part of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ waste hierarchy. We fully believe that we all need to waste less and that food that can be eaten should be. But it’s environmentally and socially irresponsible to send organic material to landfill or incineration in residual waste collections, which can be a costlier option too. So we’re clear that any unavoidable waste should go to AD or composting.

More local authorities offering dedicated food waste collection services would make a huge difference, but it’s vital that central government properly encourages this. As well as making more low-cost tools available, the government needs to ensure the waste hierarchy, which is enshrined in law, is enforced. The UK has a legally-binding 50 per cent recycling target for 2020, and food recycling is integral to achieving this.

Scotland and Wales are already showing what can be achieved, forging ahead with impressive results in terms of both food waste recycling rates and cost savings.

Instead of retreating from food waste collections, we’d urge all local authorities in England to look again at the many innovative ways to encourage people to recycle more, as spending a little now can save a lot.