Council food waste an undervalued resource

Many local authorities recognise the resource potential of household food waste but more support from Government is needed to sustain council projects, argues Charlotte Morton

The Department for Communities and Local Government’s announcement of the 90 projects that successfully bid for a share of its £250m fund to support weekly bin collections has proved a mixed blessing for the anaerobic digestion (AD) sector.

While around 20 councils plan to use the money to introduce separate weekly food waste collection schemes, most of the bidders will not pursue these measures.

Not only is this a missed opportunity to put in place more sustainable collection schemes, but it also fails to remove biodegradable waste contamination from dry recyclates.

It is also disappointing given the public’s perception of weekly food waste collections – 70% of residents with existing collections have a positive impression of them, with just 8% viewing them negatively.

Despite this, the weighting criteria by which bids were judged for the fund put weekly food waste collections bottom of the list of priorities.

Some local authorities have responded by encouraging more sustainable resource management and maximising the value of their waste streams.

Oadby and Wigston Borough Council in partnership with Leicestershire County Council will not only provide weekly food waste collections but will also implement a recycling scheme called “My Street” which will make residents of each street aware of how they are performing on recycling compared to others.

Lewes District Council is set to almost double recycling rates in 2013, from 23% to 42%, due in part to the introduction of weekly food waste collections that are treated through in-vessel composting, with an aspiration to introduce AD in the near future.

Public engagement is critical; households with existing food waste collections have scored feedback to residents as the weakest element of the service.

Greater information about waste can help reduce waste arising in the first place, win support for recycling schemes, and reduce contamination in separated collections.

A relatively small number of successful bidders, including Wolverhampton City Council and Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, will use the food waste collected for AD, while Northamptonshire Waste Partnership has been given permission to build several AD plants to treat the food waste.

Some local authorities are also looking at the benefits which renewable energy from AD could bring them directly by upgrading biogas to biomethane for use in vehicles.

The London Borough of Greenwich has partnered with the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association to produce a database of gas refuelling infrastructure, which will look to support the roll out of biomethane vehicles across the country.

This thinking reflects a growing recognition of the potential in our waste, but there is still some distance to travel to truly appreciate its value.

At a time when the Government is pursuing a “shale gas revolution” for energy security, the ability to generate green biogas with none of the environmental concerns needs to be much more widely embraced.

Just as importantly, our food security is dependent on closing the nutrient loop, rather than wasting finite resources such as phosphorus. AD is central to both, and around a third of its UK potential comes from the biodegradable fraction of municipal solid waste.

Councils need a supportive framework from central government to help them realise the benefits of separate food waste collections in general, and AD and biogas in particular.

England needs stable policies which remove biodegradable waste from landfill; encourage separate weekly collections of food waste; provide increased financial security for potential investors in AD plants; and ensure we make better use of resources overall.

As well as moving us closer to “closed loop” food production and helping to deliver renewable energy targets, this could bring significant benefits to green growth, waste reduction and value for money for local tax payers.

Charlotte Morton is ADBA’s chief executive

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