Food for thought: dining on the recovery dilemma

Unwanted food is arguably the biggest residual household waste stream yet its recovery still lags behind other materials. Adam Read and Sarah Knapp examine what can be done to address this

Food has always represented a much bigger percentage of the total weight of waste thrown out by households compared to packaging, but has proved more difficult to manage. While councils are often advised on improving the capture rates of their kerbside recycling schemes to make it easier for residents to recycle packaging, food is a long way down the priority list.

Food waste collection is often seen as a 'difficult sell' and residents are quick to rebel against their perceived barriers to its collection. The trend has been to look at collecting green/garden waste for the tonnage, while food waste remains ignored. This may be a generalisation, but many LAs are still making expensive service decisions without full data on composition and capture rates.

When it comes to food waste, a great deal of attention is put on developing the uptake of relatively cheap home compost units. But even in areas that provide the type of bin that can handle meat, fish and bones, home composting does not make a major impact on the amount of food waste thrown out.

Not all households are able to compost at home and others are often loath to include bread, biscuits and bones in their home compost bin for fear of attracting vermin and flies. Householders have shown a certain disdain towards separate food waste collection schemes, particularly when the food waste is collected every other week - something that has often been used as a means of making the new service affordable.

Complaints include the smell, the maggots and the inconvenience. Clearly these issues are emotive and are linked to historical problems associated with open waste. If alternate weekly food waste collections are to be part of the answer, then more needs to be done in terms of effective service design and delivery as well as public engagement, communications and support. Food waste may be better collected on a weekly cycle with residual and recyclables alternating.

More untouched food in the bin
Research carried out by WastesWork has shown that it is not just peelings, bones or plate scrapings that are thrown into the residual waste bin. The amount of food waste that is thrown away untouched is increasing. Whole loaves of bread, unopened fish cakes and out-of-date yoghurts are becoming regular occurrences in waste audits.

The first course of action therefore should be minimisation - reduce the amount of food becoming waste in the first place. Householders should only shop for what they need - they need to take responsibility for what they buy and what they waste.

Even in areas where householders participate in paper and packaging kerbside recycling schemes, separate collections for food waste are considerably less popular and less well supported. Recent data taken from kerbside collections by Hyder Consulting in one LA area found that food waste participation was less regular, less effective and more contaminated than equivalent paper and dry recyclables collections.

Are separate collections enough?
While this may reflect the relative novelty of the food waste scheme, more time and effort is needed to get people to understand and use the food waste schemes more effectively. So are separate collections for food waste the answer, particularly if householders cannot be persuaded to fully comply with the service?

A series of analyses in LA area found that 83% of the residual bins surveyed contained cooked and prepared food waste, even though this was in an area where the council had implemented a separate food waste collection service. More joined up thinking is required to understand what is different in terms of food waste scheme participation and dry recyclables.

WastesWork and Hyder Consulting undertook a project to identify at which point different foods are thought of as waste and how households can be helped to prevent that waste.

A classification and hand sorting protocol was designed to find answers to the following questions: as householders are we cooking too much?; are we storing food correctly?; are our fridges working efficiently?; what about shelf life - are use by dates or best before dates misleading?; are we buying too much?; are supermarkets trying to oversell us stuff we don't need and won't eat?; do 'buy one get one free' deals need to be outlawed for certain products?

If households can be shown methods for reducing the amount of food waste they produce and supermarkets can be prevented from overselling, this will have a major impact on the amount of food waste that occurs. Thanks to the food waste classification system and the protocol devised by WastesWork, the industry has an effective method for identifying why and when food becomes waste. The next step will be to carry out extensive work across the UK to gain data that will support this need for action and change.

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