POLITICIANS HAVE raised the prospect of a total ban on sending food waste to the tip but the industry is in two minds about the benefits.
Food waste has been thrust into the spotlight. A number of heavyweight reports have whetted the media and, in turn, politicians’ appetite for the issue.
In September, the Food and Agriculture Organisation claimed that food waste costs the global economy £470 billion a year. Before that, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimated that between 30% and 50% (or 1.2 to 2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. “A tragedy,” it said.
In the UK, 7.3m tonnes of food waste is generated by households. Recent research by the consumer group Which? revealed that 14m people say they are now reducing the amount of food they chuck away to save money. Jamie Oliver is lending a hand with his Save with Jamie campaign. The celebrity chef says: “It’s about embracing tips, ideas and principles that you can easily adopt into your everyday life, all of which should make a good difference to your wal- let.” His tips are simple, but given the scale of the challenge and the escalating cost of food, every saving will help.
Businesses also need a hand. According to the charity FoodCycle, 400,000 tonnes of usable surplus food could be saved from supermarkets each year. Hotels, pubs and restaurants produce 600,000 tonnes, says WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme), which last year introduced a voluntary agreement to reduce the sector’s food waste and ensure that most of what’s left ends up composted or turned into en- ergy via anaerobic digestion (AD). This fol- lowed a commitment by the government in 2011, and the success of a similar scheme for grocery (the Courtauld Commitment). But it seems the pressure is growing for harsher policy tools. At the Labour Party conference in September, the then shadow environment secretary, Mary Creagh, said that if elected, “a One Nation Labour gov- ernment will ban food from landfill so that less food gets wasted in the supermarket supply chain and more food gets eaten by hungry children”.
So is a ban the perfect policy tool or a case of sledgehammers and nuts? And what would it mean for food businesses?
The most recent economic study on the concept was published in March by the Green Alliance. The think-tank concluded that £2.5 billion of resources could be recovered if a range of bans were introduced, including £508m from avoided landfill costs for food waste. Dustin Benton, its head of resource stewardship, says landfill bans would be an opportunity for food businesses.
“Separating food waste and managing food use better is a great means of saving money,” he explains. “For larger businesses, long-term contracts with AD operators mean that food businesses can share some of the profits” from the creation of energy.
Charlotte Morton, the chief executive of the Anaerobic Digestion & Biogas Association, points out the “unacceptable” current situation which sees 35% of the country’s food waste sent to landfill, with just 7% treated through AD.
“Banning food waste to landfill, accom- panied by the introduction of separate food waste collections, will help to reduce this waste in the first place and ensure we make the most of what’s left,” says Morton. Food businesses could also profit from this policy, she says, given that landfill tax liability will be cut and organisations will begin to “explore the benefits that can be realised through integrating separate food waste collections and anaerobic digestion into their operations”.
Others are less confident about the real commercial benefits of a landfill ban. Peter Charlesworth, an environmental consultant with Carbon Statement, has been studying the challenges hospitality businesses face when it comes to managing their food waste in detail. He believes the cost of waste col- lection could go up in the event of a landfill ban on food, with those in remote areas at most risk. In an already squeezed sector, this could “inevitably mean an increased rate of closure of the local pubs and restaurants”. Charlesworth adds: “Banning food from landfill is a good aim and strategy. The challenge is how to efficiently manage the food waste separation and collection. To do this properly means using both the carrot and the stick approach: the stick of legisla- tion and carrot of supporting the initiatives required to do this efficiently.”
Many other experts believe that careful thought is required to ensure that any ban comes with the right lead-in time, sufficient support for infrastructure and complementary policies. This is based on experience from countries where landfill bans have been introduced.
“Places where the ban works have taken a considerable period of time and they have introduced policy mixes, with a landfill ban being one element of the mix,” explains Jiao Tang, a technical project manager at the International Solid Waste Association. Such mixes include market incentives like landfill tax, support for the end products including compost and digestate, an increase in AD and composting capacity, the establishment of integrated infrastructure and the promo- tion of source separation.
The investment in upstream collection infrastructure to adapt to such legislation would be considerable, especially for the foodservice sector where outlets are numer- ous but produce limited waste volumes. Collection could be a major hurdle.
It will be interesting to see how Scotland copes. The government has launched regulations that include a ban on sending biodegradable waste to landfill in 2021. To pave the way, the regulations also include a requirement for all businesses producing more than 50kg of food waste a week to separate it for collection from January 1st 2014. There’s an exception for those in rural areas, while those who chuck away 5-50kg of food waste a week have until 2016 to comply.
Since the Waste (Scotland) Regulations were approved, new infrastructure has been greenlighted and the government has stumped up cash to help increase the num- ber of food waste collections. “A ban on food waste to landfill sends an important mes- sage but will not be effective on its own,” says Morton. “The Scottish government has shown that councils and businesses need support to develop infrastructure for food waste recycling.”
Adam Read, the practice director for waste management at the consultants Ricardo-AEA, says a ban would ensure that collection systems “evolve” to address the waste streams. But the policy can be “ter- ribly difficult” to implement and police. He explains: “Just how much food waste would be acceptable at landfill, and how do you ensure that some household or commercial bins don’t have some leftovers in the bottom? There’s also the cost of regulating this to consider and how many bins you need to monitor to ensure that diversion targets are being hit.”
A ban on sending food to landfill is certainly not a silver bullet. “It’s a pretty harsh policy tool,” says Stephen Shergold, a partner in the environment team at law firm Dentons, who points to the improvements stimulated by the landfill tax escalator. More and more companies are also going beyond any legislation, implementing their own food waste schemes, driven by public opinion rather than regulatory need, he says.
Whether policymakers are posturing or potentially serious about a landfill ban, food waste is an issue that has resonated with the public. Pressure from customers for companies to act could carry more weight than anything the politicians dream up.