Labouring over the food waste dilemma

Labour has signalled its intention to introduce a landfill ban on food. But is it a credible, cost-effective and even practical policy? David Burrows reports.

Mary Creagh raised a few eyebrows at this year’s Labour party conference in September when she said: “A One Nation Labour government will ban food from landfill so that less food gets wasted in the supermarket supply chain and more food gets eaten by hungry children.”

As shadow environment secretary Creagh – who has just been made shadow transport secretary – has hinted at the policy before, but this was a clear statement of intent. And it was certainly a change of gear from Labour’s waste paper in April, in which the only significant commitment was to “align England’s recycling targets with those in Scotland and Wales”.

But is this a realistic proposition or the first flurries of political grandstanding on the journey to the 2015 election? After all, the concept has neared approval before, only for an about turn following concerns over costs and quantities

Food waste is also very much in vogue, with a number of heavyweight reports having thrust the issue into the media spotlight (in September, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, for instance, suggested the waste stream costs the global economy £470B a year).

Serious or not, Creagh’s comments have raised an interesting question: could a ban on sending food to landfill really work in this country? And does the UK have the infrastructure in place to deal with the 7.3M tonnes of food waste generated by households alone?

Nigel Mattravers is senior waste advisor at consultants Golder Associates (UK). He says the concept of diverting food waste from landfill is “laudable” and to be encouraged if there’s a use for the material, for example to produce energy via anaerobic digestion (AD). Banning, however, brings a host of difficulties, he warns; not least defining when is food waste not food waste.
He adds: “There is also the need for infrastructure. Not all local authorities collect food waste and collection systems for commercial food waste are limited and difficult to manage. [The other issue] is whether there are the suitable treatment plants in place.”

Currently, 35% of food waste is sent to landfill, with only 7% treated by AD – a situation ADBA (Anaerobic Digestion & Biogas Association) refers to as “unacceptable”.

Prohibiting the landfilling of food waste could be a great opportunity for the AD sector, given the availability of feedstock. It could also save local authorities money on landfill taxes.

A report by the Green Alliance earlier this year claimed that £2.5bn of resources could be recovered through the introduction of a range of bans on sending materials to landfill. This included £508M from avoided landfill costs for food waste and £693M generated from sending food to AD rather than landfill. However, the financial benefits of a ban are not quite that clear cut, as a feasibility study by WRAP found late last year. It concluded that incineration and mechanical biological treatment (MBT) of waste would increase, resulting in a “net cost to society”.

“A landfill ban on food waste is good news for AD, and for the environment,” says Dustin Benton, head of resource stewardship at the Green Alliance. “But the design of the ban is crucial – separate collections are needed to make food waste work for AD and prevent overreliance on incineration.”

Others tend to agree. Jiao Tang is technical project manager at the International Solid Waste Association. She says bans must be conceived in such a way that the waste hierarchy is “respected”, with AD and composting favourable to MBT or incineration.

Bans can take “considerable” time to implement, she says, and experience from countries where they are working shows they have been introduced as part of a policy mix. “Those mixes include market incentives such as landfill tax, supporting the use and market for compost, increasing AD and composting capacity, establishing integrated infrastructure and promoting source separation,” Tang explains.

Indeed, the investment in upstream collection infrastructure to adapt to such legislation would be considerable – not least because only about 20% of households have source segregated organic collections at present. All eyes will, inevitably, turn to Scotland where a landfill ban on sending biodegradable waste to landfill is expected in 2021. By 2016, however, the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 place a statutory duty on all local authorities to provide households with a separate food waste collection service.

The Scottish Government has shown that councils and businesses need support to develop the infrastructure for food waste recycling. New weekly food waste collections started in Inverness in September, for instance, with the Highland Council receiving £0.5M in funding from Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS). The ongoing annual revenue costs of the service are estimated at £385,000, but the council estimates the savings from avoiding landfill costs, based on an annual collection of 2,300 tonnes of food waste, could be £270,000 and therefore the net pressure on the council’s revenue budget would be £115,000 a year.

Edinburgh City Council was the first to receive backing, with £1.3m to roll out food waste collections to 140,000 households in 2011. In March this year the service was expanded to include flats and tenements. Cllr Jim Orr, vice convener of the environment committee, says the scheme will make a “huge difference” to the amount of food waste ending up landfill.

“Last year this council spent over £13m on sending waste to landfill. This is money that would be far better spent on improving local services.”

Some suggest the new regulations and the eventual ban on food waste ending up in landfill could even result in some Scottish local authorities jumping on the commercial food waste collection bandwagon. “With food waste collections about to become enshrined in law, and councils already being required to provide food collections for households, it seems a sensible next step to also provide food collection for businesses, particularly where the authority already provides other commercial recycling services,” says Eilidh Brunton, business development executive at the Food Waste Network.

So, will the government south of the border be tempted into more ambitious plans and an eventual ban on landfill?
The coalition government has committed to considering food waste landfill bans during the course of this parliament, so the fact that Labour has said they will implement a ban “opens the door for a cross party consensus on a policy that is good for business and the environment”, says the Green Alliance’s Benton.

Others are a little more cautious given that the government has got close to introducing the policy before. “We had a good run at this [policy, a landfill ban] about five years ago, and then the government stepped away from it. Every time that happens the banks get even more nervous about [investing in the waste sector],” says Stephen Shergold, a partner in the environment team at law firm Dentons. “There are a number of barriers to investment in waste infrastructure, and one of those, created by politics, is a lack of certainty.”

Realistic or optimistic, the coming months should certainly prove interesting, not least because there’s a new shadow environment secretary (Maria Eagle) and new faces and possible portfolio changes afoot at Defra. “As Labour hones their waste policy, issues such as separate food waste collections are likely to be high on the agenda,” says ADBA policy manager Matt Hindle: “As Labour hones their waste policy, issues such as separate food waste collections are likely to be high on the agenda.”

This feature first appeared in LAWR. David Burrows is a freelance journalist.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie