The search for greater organics separation

Tony Breton, Market Developer, Source Separation Europe for bioplastics company Novamont, looks at where the UK stands on separately collected organic waste and how budgets are hindering their introduction in England 

Tony Breton

Back in 2006, I joined the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) study tour to Lombardy, where we saw established and world-class separate collection services capturing 80 per cent of food waste. The tour enabled the 2007 “Italian job” trials in the UK, and food waste collection was set to be the next big thing. But those were the pre-George (Osborne) and Eric (Pickles) halcyon days; composting was thriving, anaerobic digestion (AD) had leapt from Michael Chesshire’s garden into the mainstream, local authorities (and WRAP) had money and staff, and England even had a waste strategy and statutory recycling targets.

So, whilst it would be a challenge, the idea of separately collecting 10 million tonnes (Mt) of biowaste and sending it for organic recycling by 2020 was one we were equipped for and ready to chase.

So, where are we with food waste recycling today?

WRAP’s most recent data suggests councils collected just under 5Mt of food waste in 2015, meaning the average household generates 175 kilogrammes (kg) of collectable food waste a year (around 2.4Mt also go down the drain and into dogs and home composters). Like policy, the collected average varies across the UK. Wales’s statutory recycling targets and targeted support mean that 95 per cent of households now have a separate food waste collection service and receive a supply of compostable liners along with regular communications. This has led to increases in food waste recycling, with the average Welsh council collecting around 75kg of food waste from each household – a capture rate of around 50 per cent – in 2015/16. 

Scotland and Northern Ireland, meanwhile, both have some form of mandatory food waste collections. Scotland has recently made significant investments, with more than one million households now receiving a weekly separate food waste collection. In addition, over 500,000 households can recycle food waste together with garden waste. Despite the higher proportion of flats and tenements, the distribution of (compostable) liners in Scotland is less prevalent than in Wales, which partly explains the lower yield of separate food schemes – around 60kg per household, a capture rate around 40 per cent.

Data on different collection in Northern Ireland is difficult to separate but we know that over 75 per cent of households who are able to recycle food have a co-mingled food and garden service with compostable liners.

With less than no money, limited staff, no specific policy drivers and no enforcement of the duty of care and the waste hierarchy, it is unsurprising that council food waste collections in England are not performing so well. In 2015, around 6.3 million households received a separate food collection service, yielding just under 50kg per household at a capture rate of just 30 per cent. A further 5.5 million households received a co-mingled food and garden service. Compared to the devolved nations, liner distribution is minimal, with just 20 per cent of households receiving free compostable liners. A further five per cent receive free plastic liners, and over two million households with separate food collections are being told they can use any plastic bag to line their caddies (legally, up to 1,000 carrier bags’ worth of microplastics can be recycled per hectare as PAS110 product). Despite the move to ‘free’ plastic, the overall performance has remained stubbornly low.

There are many reasons why the UK is recycling just 13 per cent of all food waste and the average household service captures less than a third of the food available, but the main ones are money and a politically-driven lack of enforcement. Collecting food waste well is relatively expensive and needs systemic service overhauls to add up. Even at a time when gate fees for organic recycling, in particular AD, are being subsidised down to record lows, outside of the devolved nations, there remains a remarkable level of political apathy and many services appear to be targeting reduced residual collections (and costs), and not increasing recycling.

With our leaders not minded to do anything ‘intrusive’ on food waste, we in the resource sector should be looking at the alternative solution and thereby debunking the fake news that incineration plays an essential role in a circular economy and demanding an incineration tax. Organic recycling is a pillar of the bio- and circular economies. When it comes to food waste, as an industry we know what to do and how to do it well (and without filling our soils with plastic). However, it can’t be done for free.