Taking the lead on waste
Following the announcement from Defra that it will not be looking to impose a landfill ban on food waste,
Philip Simpson of organics recycling firm ReFood argues that Defra
needs to do more to fulfil its duty to the industry and the environment.
Recent announcements from Defra regarding waste policy demonstrate there is a risk that the department is losing touch with the industry it represents. The belief that landfill tax escalations will continue to drive up the recycling rate is misplaced and relies upon the full impact of the cost being passed on to the waste producer.
There is a surprising lack of understanding amongst government ministers as to how the waste industry actually operates. The reality is that many waste contracts are priced on a per-bin, rather than per-tonne basis. Therefore, those with light bins full of paper are offsetting the cost to those with heavy, food waste-laden bins.
Landfill tax is encouraging producers and their waste management providers to find cheaper alternatives, not the best environmental or indeed economical option. Incineration is increasingly the solution of choice, and while it sits one place higher on the waste hierarchy, it still loses the resource value offered by food and other waste materials.
However, the most critical thing that ministers are overlooking is the positive impact that legislation and targets are having in both Scotland and Wales. The majority of Welsh local authorities include food waste collection services and their average recycling rates are more than 10% higher than those in England. It’s imperative that we recognise both the positive resource food waste offers if recycled, and the negative impact it has in contaminating other materials that could be captured for recycling. The real question that has to be asked is why is England lagging so far behind its Celtic cousins?
Defra needs to take on the mantle and help steer the country towards best practice when it comes to waste management. We’re a small island, our landfill capacity will run out and, on the other side of the coin, we have renewable energy and carbon reduction targets to meet and need focus on managing our resources. For instance, it is estimated that a massive 50% of food produced on the planet never reaches its intended human stomach - a scandalous waste of the water, energy and nutrients that went into its production.
In the face of growing global pressures on food production, we have not only a moral obligation but an absolute need to address this and one part of that is to ensure that where food does become ‘waste’ we harness its use for energy generation and production of nutrient-rich fertiliser.
The role of AD in providing organic fraction to our depleting soils as well as renewable energy cannot be underestimated and will become more crucial as nutrient resources become scarcer and we move away from a carbon based economy. The alternative is to landfill or burn food waste and surely we cannot be so wasteful as to destroy the resource value in food twice?
Capturing food waste for recycling is a win-win, making a significant contribution to our environmental and recycling targets. It will enable more recyclate to be uncontaminated and captured further down the recycling process. It will also produce significant levels of renewable energy and heat, as well as nutrient-rich fertiliser. However, to achieve the potential on offer we have to capture it for recycling and that requires governmental leadership. There needs to be a driver that encourages producers to make the right choice.
Legislation, much like that currently being implemented in Wales and Scotland, is the best way to achieve positive change in a phased way that makes it workable to small and large waste producers.
Defra needs to stand up and lead the way, rather than looking backwards towards weekly bin collections. Indeed, the Vision 2020 Roadmap to zero food waste to landfill, launched by ReFood last November, did receive a response from government. However, the only point they could pick to respond to in the 60-page document (that looked in-depth at the challenges and opportunities for each sector of the supply chain) was the fact that weekly collections had been taken up by some local authorities and had delivered benefits. This one response misses the point and demonstrated the reluctance of some ministers to listen to those at the coal face and stop their obsession with reintroducing weekly collection which very few in the industry agree with.
The waste sector can only do so much to encourage behavioural change, we need the government to do what it is there to do... be the agent of the people who elected it. We are calling for Defra to engage with the industry and agree a process that will enable the industry access to greater levels of food waste and ensure the resource it offers is fully exploited be for food banks, animal feed or AD. Food waste is an important global resource and we should not squander it.