The eating disorder around food waste

Battling negative perceptions of 'slop buckets', Nicola Peake explains why more service providers need to do more to capture this waste stream

When it comes to the Government’s stance on sending food waste to landfill, the messages coming from the powers-that-be have been mixed to say the least.

On the one hand, the Conservatives want to maintain support for the Localism agenda, which upholds the rights of residents to pursue consumer lifestyle choices, while on the other, Defra has condemned society’s long-standing reliance on landfill as a waste solution.

Collecting food waste and eliminating it from the residual waste landfill will never be straightforward, but that does not mean we should abandon this vision. The latest WRAP figures indicate that there are still 169 local authorities in England that have no food waste collection of any kind. That is a staggering 51% of councils.

The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) has voiced its concern that England will be left behind the devolved administrations. For comparison, all of the 22 local authorities in Wales collect food waste, either separately or mixed with garden waste.

To resolve this discrepancy between England and the devolved administrations, service providers need to find an effective and economical method of collection. It’s generally acknowledged that a separate collection for food is prohibitively expensive, which means the onus is on service providers to come up with innovative ways to collect this recyclate.

Referring to food waste as a recyclate is important. How else are we to change people’s attitudes unless we adapt our language to reflect the positive benefits of recycling food waste rather than the difficulties?

Rather unhelpfully, elements of the media are often heard referring to the collection receptacles as ‘slop buckets’ when in fact they are clean and secure food caddies. Nor do ministers help when they use terms such as ‘smelly waste’ to refer to food waste.

The truth is by collecting this separately we are not creating the waste – it is already there in the waste stream. Kier has found from its own service provision that when a weekly collection of food waste is combined with an alternative collection of municipal residual waste the overall volume of waste is reduced.

A few years ago WRAP estimated that the average household was throwing away around £400 of food waste per year. From our experience as service providers, a behavioural change often takes place among residents when they become aware of the volume of food they are throwing away; they actively look to reduce this amount.

If we were to estimate this behavioural change to equate to about 25% of households, then that’s £100 back in the household purse and this is a positive message we should be targeting at residents.

Councils and their service partners should look to secure funding from the Pickles weekly collection fund. There is an expectation that most of it will be spent on supporting food collection for the long-term benefit.

It’s also about joining up the dots. A clear message and a focused effort on collecting food waste would also support the anaerobic digestion industry. With the potential to reduce methane emissions and the use of mineral fertilisers, there are multiple benefits to growing this industry, not least the provision of sustainable energy production.

If we can communicate this end goal more effectively to residents, I am confident this will provide sufficient justification for the small amount of effort required to put this valuable waste stream in the caddy, rather than the bin.

Yes, it’s true that food waste generated by households only accounts for around 30% of the estimated 5.7m tonnes of food waste generated in the UK each year. But we have to start somewhere and it is down to industry leaders to take these first steps.

It is our responsibility to change negative perceptions. By looking past the difficulties and focusing our discussions on the importance and benefits of reducing the overall amount of food waste, we can keep this waste from landfill.

Nicola Peake is managing director of Kier’s environmental business

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