Why the UK appears to be absent when tackling food waste

Written by: Philip Simpson | Published:
6.8m tonnes of avoidable food waste is created in the UK every year

When it comes to tackling food waste, the UK appears to be absent.

The World Biogas Association’s Global Food Waste Management: An Implementation Guide for Cities provides fascinating insight into how some of the world’s most densely populated areas are leading the way in combatting food waste.

Exploring examples of global best practice, the report examines how governments, businesses and citizens can work together to improve food waste recycling rates.

The findings of the report make timely reading indeed for the UK. Disappointingly, despite long being regarded as a global innovator in the war on waste, no British city is held up as an example of best practice.

This corroborates recent research conducted by WRAP, which found a nationwide stagnation of household recycling rates – including food waste.

Nowhere is this more evident than in London. According to charity Recycling For London, 910,000 tonnes of food waste is thrown away in the capital each year – 60% (540,000 tonnes) of which could have been recycled.

Not only is this mountain of food waste creating more than 19 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, but disposing of it is costing local authorities across the city more than £50m per annum.

Learning from best practice

With councils nationwide being forced to adhere to ever-tightening budgets, it’s clear that a cost-effective solution to this food waste crisis must be found – and soon.

Luckily, the World Biogas Association’s pioneering report shows how other major cities across the world are not just getting a handle on their waste output, but actively decreasing it.

One such example can be found in Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital city and most populated conurbation. Recognising the inherent value of food waste, Copenhagen is in the final stages of rolling out a city-wide separate food waste collection service.

More than 300,000 houses will be covered by the scheme, equating to some 600,000 citizens, with more than 10,000 tonnes of food waste expected to be recovered every year once the initiative is at full capacity.

The collection covers all kinds of food waste, including fresh produce, fats, eggshells and bones. Managed by a network of private collection companies, the waste is picked up from households weekly and delivered to anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities. From here, it is processed and turned into a renewable energy source.

It is estimated that the separate waste collection scheme will produce more than 7,500,000 m3 of biogas per year, which will be sent directly to the grid to provide electricity and district heating for homes across the region.

A similar scheme has been introduced in Milan, long-regarded as Italy’s most progressive municipality when it comes to the introduction of sustainability initiatives.

Having first introduced separate food waste collections for the city in 2012, the Milanese government recently rolled the programme out across the entire municipality, recovering 140,000 tonnes of food waste per year.

Taking the initial idea of Copenhagen a step further, Milan operates kerbside collections for both domestic and commercial food waste. Every household is equipped with a 10-litre kitchen caddy for storing waste, alongside a supply of compostable bioplastic liners.

Food waste is collected twice a week and sent to the Montello AD facility in Bergamo for processing. Every year, the plant processes more than 285,000 tonnes of food waste, creating 300,000 tonnes of biogas which, as with the Danish example, is exported directly to the national grid.

Emulating success

Its absence from the report is not to say that the UK isn’t also demonstrating examples of best practice. Indeed, a number of sectors are leading the way.

Take our grocery retail sector, for example. It stands among the most proactive in the world for actively seeking to reduce food waste. Whether that’s Asda’s wonky veg box scheme or Marks & Spencer’s commitment to diverting all edible food waste to charity, British supermarkets continue to set an example to the rest of the world.

Unlike other countries, however, the UK has failed to adopt a uniform approach to municipal food waste collections. With almost seven million tonnes of food waste still thrown away by households nationwide, this strategy can’t continue.

ReFood UK has long been an advocate for separate food waste collection as standard across the UK. While the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have already devolved the power to set their own agenda for food waste from Westminster, the English approach remains disjointed and, often, ineffective.

I would encourage the UK government to view the World Biogas Association’s report as a valuable blueprint for engendering a more sustainable approach to food waste nationwide.

Alongside firmer targets on lessening our reliance on landfill, we must also look at how we can roll out separate food waste collection services nationwide.

England still lacks a clear legislative approach to reducing food waste, with the onus left to district councils on how waste is collected. This has resulted in wildly disparate recycling rates from district to district. In total, 6.8 million tonnes of avoidable food waste is created each year – a drain of more than £13bn on the public purse.

The success witnessed with the likes of Milan and Copenhagen hasn’t happened overnight. The results have been driven by consistent government support, clearly defined strategy and buy-in from both citizens and big business.

The UK is still a global leader in the war on food waste, but I’d like to see the government look across the Channel to the success seen in Europe and implement similar best practice strategies here.



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