Ad nauseam

Written by: Matt Clay | Published:

Writer and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has declared war on waste and garnered the public’s attention on issues such as coffee cups and packaging. But will reducing food waste cause a major headache for anaerobic digestion plants? Matt Clay investigates

The phrase ‘If you build it, they will come’ originated from the 1989 film Field of Dreams, in which corn farmer Kevin Costner interprets voices as a command to build a baseball pitch in his fields. The Chicago White Sox soon came.

Yet the phrase has been adopted to virtually everything: from building casinos, to pubs and hotels, suggesting that if you build an attraction, the punters will soon follow.

Sadly this mantra cannot be attributed to the anaerobic digestion (AD) sector, which over recent years has built treatment infrastructure at a tremendous rate yet the “they”, as in the required food waste feedstock, hasn’t followed in the same fashion.

In total, there are now more than 200 agricultural AD plants, compared with 142 in 2015, and 85 food waste AD plants, according to the Anaerobic Digestion Market Report published by ADBA (Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association) in July.

As Charlotte Morton, chief executive of ADBA, said at the time: “When the association was founded in 2009, there were fewer than 50 plants outside the well-established sewage sludge treatment sector. There are now well over 300.”

Discussing collections, ADBA goes on to say that “separate food waste collections are currently growing at negligible levels, providing a severe restriction on AD market development”. Furthermore, for the last two years food waste collection has been increasing by just 1% per year.

Industry tipping point

It was two years ago when a report from Eunomia Research & Consulting first highlighted this issue. It said that AD capacity designed to treat food waste is developing at a faster pace than food waste feedstock is currently being ‘unlocked’ for separate collection.

At the time, the AD market was described as reaching “a ‘tipping point’ beyond which there is not currently sufficient feedstock being collected (from the food processing/manufacturing, household and commercial sectors) to support operation of new AD facilities, designed to treat food waste, coming to market”.

If this concern was highlighted at least two years ago, has it improved since or have AD plants continued to be built despite the lack of ‘unlocked’ feedstock available?

“It is still the same,” Adam Baddeley, head of energy at consultancy Eunomia, tells RWW magazine. “Gate fees are at rock bottom. There hasn’t been a step change in terms of collections since then in either household or commercial sectors. We’re still in that same predicament. There was a lot of encouragement from the government in terms of renewable support mechanisms, but no action in respect to the feedstock. So we’ve had even more capacity built in the last two years, but not an equivalent level of [food waste] collections.”

As a result, Baddeley estimates that on aggregate, many AD plants could be operating to two-thirds of their full capacity.

He adds: “Unless something changes, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have more plants encountering real problems and there being some casualties.”

Economic benefits or risk?

In 2014, of the 10,025 million tonnes of household waste collected for recycling, separately collected food waste comprised only 3%. Furthermore, while over 90% of English local authorities offer a garden waste collection, 45% offer no facility to separately collect food waste from residual waste, according to a report launched in May by the Renewable Energy Association.

Baddeley believes that economic uncertainty has made it difficult to convince local authorities to collect food waste.

“Although you can model and prove a business case that local authority food waste collection and treatment can be a commercially sensible thing to do, it’s been difficult to convince them at a time when they’re having budgets cut.”

Based on data from the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), between £10-£20 per household, per year can be saved by moving to weekly food waste collections. This is based on authorities already running weekly residual waste collections which would move to fortnightly.

Eunomia’s head of energy says there is a perceived risk of costs being higher with food waste collections, but in reality while you might be adding to collection costs, you are creating lower disposal costs, so the net effect is a fall.

Others believe the lack of feedstock is preventing the AD industry reaching its full potential.

Speaking to RWW magazine, Philip Simpson, commercial director at food waste treatment company ReFood, says: “The AD industry has developed very quickly over the past few years, in part due to significant investment and research and development from AD providers themselves. Unfortunately, in England, the onus on providing separate food waste collection services is left to local authorities. While some councils take their responsibility to reduce food waste seriously, there is more work to be done on a national level. Because of this disparity, we’re seeing that feedstock levels are inconsistent, meaning that the industry is not operating as efficiently as it could.”

Simpson adds: “The process relies on continuous feedstock to function, which means that inconsistent levels pose a continued challenge for the industry.”

Addressing the feedstock shortage

Industry concerns over its army of AD plants indeed going ‘hungry’ from a lack of feedstock have not fallen on deaf ears. Earlier this year the Food Waste Recycling Action Plan was launched, designed to increase the amount of food waste collected and recycled.

The plan has been chaired by waste and resources specialist, Ray Georgeson. At the time he said: “Finding a clear and concise path to improved food waste collections was never going to be easy, but I am delighted by the response of the steering group. They have risen to the challenge and we’ve produced a succinct and realistic action plan, which is the industry’s collective response to the barriers holding back growth in food waste recycling. I look forward to seeing us use these actions to deliver tangible change.”

A five-point plan was presented as part of the development, with actions grouped under five distinct themes: developing the business case; optimising food waste collections; communicating with householders and commercial food waste producers; ensuring quality as well as quantity; and making contracts work.

Each action is assigned to a lead body responsible for co-ordinating its delivery.

Business case for business waste

If food waste generated by households has been difficult to unlock, it’s worth looking at other sectors. Data from another WRAP report – the Estimates of Food and Packaging Waste in the UK Grocery Retail and Hospitality Supply Chains – suggests 15 million tonnes of food waste is generated per year. Of this, seven million tonnes (Mt) is from households; 3.9 Mt from manufacturing; 0.9 Mt from hospitality and food service and 0.2 Mt from retail and wholesale. In total, this equates to £19 billion of food wasted each year.

“If this figure were to be successfully tackled, the report estimates that we could prevent more than 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering the environment,” adds Simpson. “In addition to this, enforcing separate food waste collections would provide the regular feedstock that the industry needs to become a key part of the UK’s energy landscape – a significant priority.”

Eunomia’s Baddeley says it is this food waste, not collected separately from restaurants and hotels, which accounts for a lot of untapped material. Despite the overall quantities, he says: “When it comes to how much is being picked up, in reality it’s a small fraction of that. That’s because many companies get charged for residual waste collection ‘per lift’, rather than using a weight-based system. As a result there is not much incentive to remove food waste from the residual stream.”

Moral outrage

Increasing news headlines, together with campaigns such as WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste, continue to put the issue of food waste on the public agenda. Even writer and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s BBC programme Hugh’s War on Waste is bringing further attention to the issue. “Throwing away food that’s perfectly good to eat is a moral outrage,” he says, while demonstrating the wastage by throwing away a quarter of shopper’s food in a supermarket.

By preventing food being wasted in the first place, this falls directly in line with the waste hierarchy and the top level for prevention. After all, avoidance of food waste is better than creating food waste.

Yet with 85 food waste AD plants now operational in the UK, does food waste reduction indeed raise a further paradox?

If AD plants are built, they need food waste collections in place. For these food waste collections to work, they need the public to continue wasting food – the very problem many are trying to stop. All three cogs are vital for the whole food waste to biogas cycle to work. Take one away, as has been seen with the lack of collections, and another will struggle.

With cash-strapped councils continuing to watch their purse strings and avoid taking unnecessary perceived risks with collections, and AD plants operating under-capacity,

the food waste dilemma is one that’s unlikely to go away.

Matt Clay is a freelance writer

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