How England should prepare for separate food waste collections

From June 2023, all local authorities in England will be required to ensure separate household collections of food waste are in place. This will mean approximately 2.3Mt[1] of banana skins, egg shells and other food waste will no longer be destined for landfill along with other household rubbish, but will be collected separately and processed elsewhere.

Here, waste management specialists Paul Palmer from GAP Organics, Grant Keenan from Keenan Recycling and Chris Negus from Privilege Finance highlight the opportunities that will arise and the pitfalls to avoid as public sector and waste management businesses get ready for the change.

Using food waste

Collecting food waste separately means it can be kept out of landfill and processed to generate renewable energy, with significant climate benefits.

“Methane released from food waste in landfill is 25 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide” says Mr Negus.

“Processing the waste using anaerobic digestion (AD) technology avoids methane release directly into the atmosphere, while producing green gas which can be injected into the national grid to supply homes and businesses. It’s a cyclical system, in which waste is used to produce energy, and to me, it’s a no-brainer.”

Mr Negus explains that in some areas it is expected that food waste coming from newly implemented separate collections will take the pressure off AD plants, which are currently facing difficulties sourcing enough feedstock. Whereas in others there will be opportunity for new AD facilities to be built to meet demand for food waste processing.

“A recent AD project funded by Privilege Finance has provided the local council with the means to process food waste in-county, rather than it being transported out of the county for incineration.

“AD facilities in the right place can make a major impact when it comes to resolving waste management challenges faced by local authorities,” adds Mr Negus.

Economic viability 

By making more food waste available, the transition to separate food waste collections in all areas of the UK could facilitate AD plants becoming economically self-sufficient.

“With more waste feedstock available, there’s the potential to shift from a tariff-based model, where AD plants are reliant on support from government funded subsidies, to a system where income derived from fairly priced gate fees is a key contributor to an AD plant being financially viable,” says Mr Negus.

This does not come as an expense to councils. “At the moment, councils pay landfill tax at a rate of £101 per tonne. Gate fees charged by AD plants tend to be in the region of £20-30 per tonne, offering significant savings for local authorities.”

Ensuring a smooth transition

Nationwide separate food waste collections bring the potential for the development of a more circular economy, however Mr Keenan urges local authorities to put plans in place now to avoid causing subsequent problems when 2023 arrives.

“Local authorities need to plan how they’re going to collect food waste separately and identify where it will go,” he says.

Keenan Recycling collects food waste on behalf of waste management companies, councils, and public sector institutions like hospitals and food businesses across the UK, which gives Mr Keenan insight into the likely logistical challenges.

“The government have indicated that they will cover the transitional costs, however what that means in practice remains unclear. My concern is that if implementation of separate food waste collections is put off until the eleventh hour, there’s a risk of running into otherwise avoidable problems like a shortages of trucks, bins and back office services to manage collections.”

Mr Keenan also recommends teaming up with the right partners to facilitate the roll-out of separate food waste collections.

“It’s not just collection logistics, but working out where the waste will go and how it can be used to maximise benefits for the environment and communities. Working with specialists who understand organic waste management makes a real difference,” he says.

In the North East, Keenan Recycling are responsible for the collection of food waste from local businesses, which GAP Organics, a specialist food waste management company, then channels to the most appropriate facility for processing.

“We ensure that organic waste gets to where it’s needed, factoring in feedstock requirements of AD facilities in the area, plus the distance to travel from source to processing,” explains Mr Palmer.

“Much of the food waste collected from Newcastle and the surrounding area goes to Wardley Biogas, a 7MW AD plant which processes 70,000 tonnes of food waste each year, including packaged food waste.

“Planning ahead and securing relationships with organic waste management specialists who understand feedstock demands will be the number one way for councils to ensure that as well as diverting waste away from landfill, it is reaching a facility which can use it in a way that benefits the environment.”

Mr Palmer also advises that there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

“Separate household food waste collections will be new to many councils and local authorities in England, but in reality this system is already working well elsewhere such as in Scotland. Councils should look at the Scottish model and learn from this,” he says.

Educating the public

Another important factor in getting prepared is ensuring the public understands what can go into their food waste collection bin. Speaking from personal experience, Mr Palmer is confident that most will get on board with separate food waste collections, as long as they are provided with the tools and the right information from the outset.

“During the first Covid lockdown, I took some spare GAP Organics food waste collection bins and shared them with my neighbours, explaining the types of waste which could go in them and arranging to collect them from outside houses once a week,” says Mr Palmer.

“There was a fantastic response, with other neighbours in the street asking for bins as well. People were keen to be involved and it amazed me how quickly they got it, both in terms of taking out the packaging and their enthusiasm for how making a simple change to their routine could result in environmental benefits.

“My hope is that by the 2023 deadline, this experience will be replicated for households all over England, which do not yet have a separate food waste collection. This is perfectly possible as long as local authorities and waste management businesses make the necessary preparations in advance,” he concludes.

Originally published by ENDS Waste & Bioenergy