Why food waste should stay at home

Home treatment cuts food waste arisings and collection costs. Maxine Perella flew to Sweden to find out how Gothenburg is incentivising householders to do more

If the Government maintains its current food waste policy, it will fail to meet its own objectives by ignoring the first tier of the waste hierarchy - reduction - in favour of recycling and recovery.

This is the view of John Cockram, managing director of Green Cone, a company that specialises in food waste digesters. Cockram is concerned that Defra is concentrating too much on a "one hat fits all approach" for food waste by encouraging centralised collection and treatment via technologies such as anaerobic digestion, to the detriment of waste minimisation options such as home composting.

Completely foolhardy
A strong believer that the unnecessary collection of food waste is "completely foolhardy", Cockram argues that councils - particularly those in rural and semi-rural locations - are incurring significant gate fees and haulage costs.

"A significant element of compostable waste is still put in the residual bin, and this could be reduced at source," he points out. "Home treatment such as composting is not only good for the environment, it cuts down on the carbon footprint and makes people think about recycling and waste minimisation more."

So surely it's sensible to focus on prevention first, before anything else? You would think so, but Cockram says there is a lack of clear incentives for councils who are tied into LATS targets, and inclined to follow whatever is currently being pushed by central policy.

"I think the Government is pursuing anaerobic digestion to the exclusion of everything else," he says, adding that this approach is a bit like being "stuck in a rut". "The EU is all about minimisation, prevention at source. We need to go back to these priniciples and persuade individuals and communities to take responsibility for their own waste."

It is a powerful argument, rooted in logic, and one that WRAP highlighted in its The food we waste report, published last May. This found that £10.2B is spent every year in the UK buying and then throwing away good food, and that councils spend another £1B collecting this food waste.

"Failing to implement relatively simple changes such as waste arisings and prevention targets, and giving credit for home composting, will continue to lead to increased waste, more pollution and greater costs," Cockram points out.

To illustrate the benefits of tackling food waste in a more holistic way, Green Cone flew me - along with a party of other journalists - out to Gothenburg in Sweden where the city council has adopted an integrated approach to home treatment.

Real incentive
Sweden has in the region of two million houses and 2.5 million apartments.

Gothenburg is one municipality, incorporating the city and rural areas. And in 1996 it took the decision to create a system to tackle organic waste - and one that would fit into an economic set-up that incentivised householders to deal with their own waste.

Today, residents in Gothenburg that do not sort their waste are charged about £165 a year more than those that do. Householders are given three options - to home compost their waste, to sort their organic waste from their ordinary waste and have it collected separately, or to have all of their waste collected in the same bin.

Home composting works out as the cheapest option, although householders have to buy their own composting bin. But payback on this outlay can be achieved in two years. There are about five different composting bins on the market, but Green Cone says it dominates with an 85% market share, as payback is achieved within just one year.

Winning model
To demonstrate the success of home treatment, around half of all the households that can undertake the activity do. And, with a national target to cut organic waste by 30% by 2010, Sweden seems to have hit upon a winning model.

Green Cone offers two different types of food waste digester: the Green Cone, which deals with just food waste, and the Green Johanna, which can take both food and green waste. While the Johanna produces a quality compost, the Cone doesn't give out much product, converting it mainly into CO2 and water. Its design is such that it eliminates smells and pest access.

Independent surveys carried out across various councils in the UK using these digesters have shown impressive reductions in waste (kilos per household a year): 184 for West Sussex; 151 for Moray; 120 for Oxford. According to Cockram, more than 30 UK councils are now using his company's digesters, and sales are growing. "We expect at least 20 new councils to start buying from us in the next three months," he says.

One customer is Guildford Borough Council, which undertook a trial in the early 1990s - in which nearly every householder on a collection round was persuaded to use a Green Cone. As a result, the authority experienced a 20% reduction in collected waste - it has since rolled out 18,000 Green Cones, and home composting is now the favoured method of dealing with food waste.

As Cockram points out quite succinctly: "If you educate people about looking after their organic waste, they will start looking after their other waste better, segregating it better, and this will push up recycling rates."
And you can't say fairer than that.
>Maxine Perella is editor of LAWR

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