The next five years: AD and food waste policy

Food waste policy will shape the future of the anaerobic digestion (AD) industry because 60% of the industry's potential comes from food waste, argues ADBA chief executive Charlotte Morton. Here, she unpicks this issue.

Subject to being able to extract food waste and get it to AD, the AD industry could generate enough green energy to meet more than 10% of the UK’s domestic gas demand, in the process reducing greenhouse emissions by more than 2%, recycling essential nutrients for food production and delivering new high value biotechnology products, such as biochemicals and bioplastics. So when the next Government considers food waste policy, there is a lot at stake.

The potential benefits across the economy can also be delivered quickly. AD is one of the few circular economy technologies already delivering commercially, contributing to a wide variety of UK business sectors by reducing both their costs and their environmental impact.

Of the estimated 600,000 tonnes of food waste disposed of by the UK hospitality sector alone, WRAP calculates the potential savings to the industry at around £724m per year with the cost per tonne of gate fees for AD plants assessed at about half that of sending waste to landfill. For people and businesses thinking about how they can recoup value from their waste resource and minimise their environmental impact, it should be a no-brainer.

Last month, ADBA’s sixth National Conference brought together more than 200 AD delegates and industry leaders, and not surprisingly one of the key items on the agenda was the potential impact of food waste policy on AD over the next five years.

Whilst the UK is already one of the European leaders on food waste AD facilities and technology, with more than 80 plants in operation and plenty more in the pipeline, only about 7% of food waste is currently recycled through AD in the UK.

The vast majority of our food waste is still dispatched to landfill, incineration or composting. So where food is not suitable for human or animal consumption, there is still clearly a great opportunity to extract value from our food waste, by using it as a feedstock for AD to generate new products, principally biogas and biofertiliser.

Stagnation in England

The latest WRAP data shows that there has been no change in the uptake of separate food waste collections by local authorities in England over the last year, which is in stark contrast to the progress made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The chairman of Eunomia Research and Consulting, Dominic Hogg, spoke at ADBA’s National Conference, last month, to call on government to “step up the drive to prevent food waste [and] mandate separate collections for food waste across local authorities and businesses.”

However, Hogg acknowledges that there is also a need for the AD industry to directly “demonstrate the potential cost savings to be made through better communications [which] target both increased capture of food and the potential benefits from food waste collection.”

Speaking from an investors perspective, the director of Barclay’s Investment Banking Division, Ashish Anand, added more broadly that “food policy is a key part of the AD conundrum when it comes to financing, but only part of the answer.”

Aside from waste legislation, the existing contracts with energy-from-waste plants and the attitude of some waste producers to segregating waste also rank amongst the greatest barriers to increased AD take-up over the next five years.

Supportive Government policy on food waste collection and treatment is clearly a necessary first step towards removing those barriers. Any such policy should certainly aim to help increase source segregation and the availability of separate food waste collections for households and businesses with organic waste streams. To ensure that the industry is able to maximise the support offered by financial incentives, such as FIT and RHI, and reach its full potential, the Government needs to combine its financial support package with coherent legislation on food waste.

Parts of the UK have already made significant progress, as demonstrated by new research from Scottish Renewables showing that the AD industry in Scotland is set to double in size over the next two years. A total of 16 plants already operate in Scotland and a further 24 have planning approval, fuelled by the rise in local authority food waste collections for businesses, which came into effect on 1 January 2014.

Participating Scottish local authorities currently pick up 8,000 tonnes of household food waste each year, but the introduction of the Scottish Government’s Zero Waste Plan could see that figure rise to 72,000 tonnes if all 32 councils roll out weekly food waste collection schemes.

Financial support package

The Northern Ireland Assembly has introduced a landfill ban on source segregated food waste from April 2015, and the Welsh Assembly has formally recognised as part of their ‘Food Waste Treatment Programme’, “that AD technology has a greater potential to have a positive impact on climate change than other food waste treatment technologies… [and so] we have created a capital and revenue financial support package for local authorities who wish to adopt AD technology”.

Welsh local authorities have, therefore, formed collaborative procurement hubs to jointly secure food waste treatment capacity, the results of which are highlighted in the latest WRAP data showing that 95% of Welsh local authorities offer separate food waste collections.

Andy Rees, head of Waste Strategy for the Welsh Government, explains that this progress has been borne out of, “additional funding provided by the Welsh Government for separate food waste collections by all 22 local authorities”.

There is increasing recognition of the importance of a national waste action plan in England, with a House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee report recommending last year that “a long-term policy goal should be the creation of a more standardised system of waste collection across local authorities which views waste as a valuable resource”.

In addition, the Department for Transport’s gas strategy for Heavy Goods Vehicles also recognised that providing biomethane as a low-carbon fuel requires a waste policy which supports AD.

The absence of such policy in England risks severely constraining food waste plants, which in some cases are already experiencing difficulties in sourcing feedstock. Clarity on the desired long term objectives of waste management could, therefore, make a huge difference.

With a general election in five months’ time, clear commitments from all political parties to recognise the value of food waste and to implement segregated collections would help businesses plan and invest. As pressure on natural resources increases, realising the full potential of the resources we are currently throwing away will only become more important.

Charlotte Morton is chief executive of the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA).

This article first appeared in edie’s sister title, LAWR. Read the latest digital issue here.

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