Eilidh Brunton, business development executive at the Food Waste Network, on the waste challenges facing food businesses and how waste contractors can help out.
David Burrows (DB): Some 50% of food waste from the hospitality sector still ends up in landfill. With a new voluntary agreement on waste in place, is the sector struggling to divert enough food waste from landfill?
Eilidh Brunton (EB): The real issue here is education and behaviour change. Struggling isn’t quite the right word – many foodservice operators are still throwing everything in the same bin because they are not aware of the business benefits of waste reduction and recycling. Food waste recycling takes a little planning and education, like any operational change in a busy kitchen. Over 150 foodservice operators have signed up, which is around 20% of the sector. These operators know that by being part of this collaborative drive to solve the sector’s recycling issues, they will all ultimately gain – in lower costs, better sustainability and a leading position in the market. The voluntary agreement is bringing together a wealth of experience, tips and case studies, which the entire sector can learn from.
DB: How important is education to help foodservice businesses get to grips with their waste?
EB: One of the major barriers to food waste recycling has been lack of information on who can collect food waste.
Food waste recycling is a newer concept than say glass recycling, so businesses are somewhat unsure about where and how they would find someone to collect their food waste. That’s where the Food Waste Network can help. When we sent information on the regulations and food waste requirements to more than 800 Scottish Vegware customers, we saw a surge in interest in our matchmaking and advice service, suggesting businesses weren’t aware of the new laws (in Scotland which focus on food waste) or how to find a provider.
DB: Do hospitality and foodservice lag behind retail when it comes to diverting waste from landfill?
EB: Animal byproducts regulations have meant that the retail sector has had to divert out of date animal products from landfill for some time. With this already in place, maybe it has been somewhat easier for retail to get to grips with food waste recycling as it is just an extension of current practices.
In the hospitality sector, food waste comes in different forms: preparation waste, peelings and leftovers and plate scrapings. These often end up in different bins and mixed in with packaging and other wastes, meaning the extent of food waste is not so obvious as, perhaps, when a supermarket has to dispose of out of date stock.
DB: According the Hospitality Carbon Reduction Forum, there is little co-ordination between the supply of food waste and collection and positioning of anaerobic digestion (AD) and food waste sites. Is this case?
EB: There is a big push to boost food waste to AD in order to gain from the current feed-in tariffs rewarding renewable electricity, but let’s not forget about the existing network of in-vessel composting facilities that have long been processing food waste. We are currently compiling our data on UK coverage and will be publishing our findings by the summer.
DB: There are over 100 AD sites in the UK now, but does the sector need its own site?
EB: Building one AD facility for the hospitality sector would not be a sensible option, mainly because the huge transport requirements would negate the benefits of recycling the food in the first place. The proximity principle of sustainability states that waste should be processed as close to where it is produced as possible – not transported for miles across the country. In addition, the UK has a strong network of in-vessel composting sites processing food waste, compostable packaging and green waste; there are also many options for on-site processing. Rather than focusing on building one digester for the whole sector, or indeed even focusing on AD, surely individual businesses should divert their food waste to their nearest facility – or process on-site if possible – thus cutting ‘food-waste miles’.
DB: What needs to be done to ensure that more food waste from the sector is diverted from landfill and towards AD?
EB: In a word: legislation. In Scotland, as of next year, businesses will be required to recycle food waste, which will increase diversion of food waste from landfill dramatically. Food waste recycling is often perceived as being a hassle, messy, expensive and yet another bin. This means unless a business is particularly environmentally-minded or clued up on the negative effects of food in landfill, establishing food waste recycling won’t be the first thing on their list. Legislation would mean businesses would have to recycle food waste by law – at which time they would learn it’s not more expensive, not messy and leaves all their other waste cleaner and easier to recycle.
DB: Do hospitality businesses provide a good quality of feedstock, compared to say retail? Is contamination an issue?
EB: The quality of feedstock can vary greatly depending on where the bins are located and how well people buy into the system. If located back of house and fully-trained staff are responsible for separating waste into the correct bins, then quality can be very high. Feedstock quality becomes an issue when bins are located front of house and consumers are responsible for separation. Ensuring bins have clear and effective signage can minimise contamination. Retail does provide good quality feedstock, however retail waste generally requires depackaging. What comes off the depackager is a porridge of macerated plastic, card and food residues, and finding a home for this can add additional costs for the processor.
DB: What can waste contractors do to help the sector better manage its waste?
EB: Make friends with your customers. Some proactive providers are doing a fantastic job of supporting their customers, but we hear many reports of poor customer service. Now is a time when foodservice companies need help, given the voluntary agreement on waste. So far, 20% of the foodservice sector have signed up, including big names such as Compass, Sodexo, Unilever, Aramark, McDonalds and many more. This has spurred a flurry of activity to highlight best practice, and so now is a fantastic time for waste contractors to speak out about practical tips to help their customers are making progress towards zero waste.
DB: are there also benefits for the waste sector?
EB: Improving communication and working with customers improves the quality of feedstock: additional design and communication services to produce bespoke signage can also minimise contamination across all waste streams. Labeling bins with pictures or photos of waste materials arising at that specific site makes it much easier and clearer for the consumer to put the material into the correct bin. What’s more, we have found a lot of success with posters which tell people why they should choose the right bin. It can just be a few words – the general bin can have ‘bin or last resort’ or ‘gets incinerated’, and the recycling bin can say ‘gets recycled into new products’.
DB: And let’s not forget that at the top of the waste hierarchy is waste minimisation.
EB: Indeed. Differentiating between surplus food still fit for consumption and genuine food waste is fundamental. If a waste contractor becomes aware that a customer often has food still fit for human consumption, which could be redistributed to people in need, we see it as their duty to suggest making contact with organisations who can help achieve this, such as Plan Zheroes, Fareshare or Foodcycle.