Good afternoon everyone. My name is Charlotte Morton, and I’m Chief Executive of the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association, or ‘ADBA’ for short. It’s great to be back here at the NEC just a few months after our own tradeshow, and I’m looking forward to the interesting discussions that are always a feature of RWM.
ADBA is the trade body for the UK anaerobic digestion, or 'AD', industry, and we represent around 400 members, who between them include AD plant operators, the AD supply chain, local authorities, farmers, transport fleet managers, energy companies, academics, waste management companies, and many more.
We are the voice of the AD industry in the UK, and like any good trade association, it's our job to support our members and lobby for the many benefits of AD to be recognised by government and regulators.
The AD process
For those not already familiar with it, AD is a natural biological process that breaks down organic material in the absence of oxygen to produce methane, carbon dioxide, a liquid co-product known as digestate, and other bioresources.
The methane and carbon dioxide together produce a biogas, which can either be put through a combined heat and power unit to produce renewable heat and electricity, or upgraded to biomethane, which can be used either as a renewable heat source in the gas grid or as a low-carbon transport fuel for heavy vehicles.
The digestate, which still contains much of the nutritional content of the organic wastes or crops from which it is derived, can be applied directly to land as a renewable biofertiliser. Digestate derived from food waste, one of several possible AD feedstocks, is rich in micro-organisms, carbon, micronutrients, and other nutrients including nitrogen, phosphate, potash, calcium, magnesium and sulphur, all of which are vital for healthy soils.
The other bioresources produced by the AD process, such as volatile fatty acids, can be used to make high-value products such as bioplastics and other chemicals.
The final outputs from the AD process – heat, power, and biofertiliser – are fed back into the wider economy, helping to produce resources that will eventually end up as wastes or purpose-grown crops, ready to be processed again through AD.
AD's place in the food waste hierarchy
Today I’m going to focus on AD’s ability to recycle inedible food waste and why separate food waste collections are necessary for allowing this to happen.
First, however, it’s important to note AD’s place in the food waste hierarchy, which you can see behind me. ADBA is clear that food waste should be avoided and reduced wherever possible; and where this isn’t possible and food is still edible and safe to eat, it should be redistributed for consumption by humans or animals. Any remaining, inedible food waste should then go to AD, where it can be fully recycled into renewable energy, clean transport fuel, and nutrient-rich biofertiliser. Composting and incineration are next down the hierarchy, recovering only nutrients or energy from food waste respectively, while landfill is of course the worst option, producing emissions of climate-change-inducing methane.
Disposing of food waste through incineration or landfill in particular is not just worse than any of the options further up the hierarchy from an environmental point of view, but also from an energy-recovery point of view. For example, food waste treated through AD generates 60% more energy than if the same food waste was put in a black bin bag and sent to an energy recovery unit.
The UK AD industry is currently recycling around 2.5 million tonnes of food waste, but we estimate that of the 10.3 million tonnes of food waste produced in the UK each year, 6 million should be diverted from incineration and landfill to AD or, where possible, even higher up the food waste hierarchy.
The benefits of recycling inedible food waste
The benefits of managing food waste sustainably are enormous. A recent report by the World Biogas Association shows that doing so on a global level could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 518 million tonnes, which is the equivalent to taking all the cars in the European Union off the road.
This slide shows the many benefits of diverting inedible food waste from incineration and landfill to AD. Doing this not only helps to reduce emissions of powerful greenhouse gases such as methane but also allows the production of home-grown renewable energy and biofertiliser, which are important for decarbonising the UK’s energy supply and restoring our depleted soils respectively. The use of biomethane as a clean transport fuel can also help to reduce emissions from heavy vehicles such as buses and HGVs, improving air quality when used instead of diesel.
Indeed, the government’s own Clean Growth Strategy notes that action to divert food waste currently being sent to landfill would help the UK meet its 2032 Carbon Budget, support resource productivity, and avoid further emissions by preventing food waste in the first place. We estimate that the introduction of separate household food waste collections would achieve a carbon saving of between 1 and 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, which would help to close 10 to 15% of the policy gap that the Committee on Climate Change has identified as needing to be filled for the UK to stand a change of meeting its forthcoming Carbon Budgets.
In terms of fertiliser use, food-waste-derived digestate can displace the almost six tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions emitted for each tonne of nitrogen fertiliser produced, as well as emissions from other types of artificial fertiliser.
Why separate collections are important
So the benefits of recycling inedible food waste through AD rather than sending this to incineration or landfill are clear. But achieving maximum recovery of resources from all of the UK’s inedible food waste is impossible without separate food waste collections, which allow food waste to be isolated from other waste streams and separately recycled through the AD process.
Most importantly, separate food waste collections have been shown to improve food waste reduction efforts by making the amount of food thrown away by households and businesses more visible. As the saying goes, you can only manage what you measure, and when households receive a food waste caddie, they often start to reduce waste and then need to buy less food. With the average UK household currently wasting £470 worth of food per year, the financial as well as environmental value of this saving shouldn’t be underestimated.
In Wales, over the period that separate food waste collections were introduced, the amount of food waste produced by households fell by 12%. While it’s impossible to identify direct causality, there are numerous studies that identify a relationship between separating food waste and a reduction in quantities of food waste.
Separate food waste collections are also a necessary tool for raising food waste recycling rates, which have stagnated in England partly as a result of only half of all households having access to separate food waste collections. By way of contrast, we’ve seen how effective mandatory separate collections can be from the inspiring examples set by Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, where food waste recycling levels have risen as a result, often alongside effective communications campaigns that encourage householders and businesses to use their food waste caddies in the right way.
Indeed, we know that separate food waste collections aren’t in themselves an automatic panacea for sustainable food waste management – having sufficiently high capture rates is a must to make separate collections cost-effective – but what is certain is that food waste recycling levels cannot rise without rollout of more separate collections.
Separate food waste collections also mean that dry recyclables achieve lower contamination levels and benefit from both higher quality levels and higher recycling rates.
There are also economic benefits to universal separate food waste collections. Analysis by the National Infrastructure Commission shows that overall they would save up to £400 million in capital costs and £1.1 billion in operational costs for local authorities between 2020 and 2050, even accounting for the cost of weekly collections.
ADBA has also calculated that separate collections would create almost seven thousand jobs in the AD industry over a ten-year period, helping to increase employment prospects in the growing green sector and grow the tax base. Each megawatt equivalent of additional AD capacity stimulated by such an increase in food waste feedstock would create 2.9 permanent jobs, almost ten times the number of permanent jobs projected to be created by the new Hinkley Point C power station per megawatt equivalent.
Learning from Milan
There is a huge amount we can learn from successful examples of food waste recycling around the world, and I want to use the oft-quoted Milan as an example. In Milan, a city with around 1.4 million residents, food waste is collected from 100% of households and commercial activities, and capture rates (that is, the percentage of food waste disposed of correctly in food waste caddies) are as high as 86%, more than twice as high as the best-performing local authorities in the UK. When separate food waste collections were introduced in Milan in 2011, the amount of food waste collected increased from 28 kg per person per year to 95 kg per person per year in 2015, close to a four-fold increase. In addition, 90% of households report satisfaction with their new collection scheme and have actively participated.
Examples like this show that food waste collections can and do work, and there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t aim for the same success in the UK.
What needs to happen now
So what needs to happen to make universal separate food waste collection and maximum recycling of inedible food waste a reality across the UK?
ADBA believes that to facilitate the highest possible rates of recycling across all waste streams, the UK needs a universal, consistent recycling system along the lines of that proposed by the Consistency Framework. It’s clear from the stagnation of recycling rates over recent years that voluntary measures alone are not sufficient to raise these levels to what is needed for the UK to meet its Carbon Budgets and recycling targets.
We fully expect the government to bring into law the recently passed EU Circular Economy Package, which obliges all Member States to separately collect biowaste by December 2023 and sets a target for 65% recycling of municipal waste by 2035. With this legislation having become binding on 4th July this year, EU Member States now have less than two years to incorporate the directive into their national laws. With the UK due to still be in its Brexit transition period in July 2020, assuming that some sort of deal is struck(!), we see no reason why the Circular Economy Package would not be incorporated into UK law, particularly as the UK government has supported the legislation throughout its passing through the EU legislature.
There have also been encouraging noises from Michael Gove and Defra about improving consistency of recycling collections ahead of the publication of the Resources & Waste Strategy. We are clear that this strategy must confirm the UK’s implementation of the targets in the Circular Economy Package, and that failure to do so would be both a missed opportunity and a major dereliction of duty. ADBA has been working closely with Defra to outline the multiple benefits of separate food waste collections and try to ensure that such a commitment is made.
We understand that as many as 70 local authorities across the UK are due to renew their waste contracts in the next three years, which provides those authorities that haven’t already done so with an ideal opportunity to get ahead of the game and add food waste collections to their range of services. Given the hugely challenging budgetary circumstances that local authorities are finding themselves in, however, it’s vital that the Resources & Waste Strategy also includes concrete support measures for local authorities who currently don’t have a strong enough business case to introduce separate food waste collections.
Westminster has a range of options for funding such support measures. It could raise taxes on more polluting disposal options such as incineration and landfill, or it could raise revenues from an extended producer responsibility system that would charge manufacturers using unnecessary packaging. It could also bring in an effective carbon price that would price in the positive externalities provided by recycling food waste through AD and price out more polluting alternatives such as incineration and landfill. However it chooses to do so, government needs to support local authorities in making universal food waste collections and maximum recycling of inedible food waste a reality.
And of course it’s not just ADBA calling for universal food waste collections. In its recent National Infrastructure Assessment, the National Infrastructure Commission called for the establishment of separate food waste collections for households and businesses to enable the production of biogas by 2025.
Similarly, the Committee on Climate Change has called for a commitment in the Resources & Waste Strategy to banning the landfilling of most biodegradable waste streams, including food waste, by 2025 at the latest. In its progress report on meeting the UK’s Carbon Budgets submitted to Parliament this summer, the CCC described food waste recycling as one of the top four “simple, low-cost options” for reducing emissions in the UK.
And there are of course many other voices from across a range of sectors supporting these calls in their own way.
Working with WRAP
As part of this, ADBA has been working closely with WRAP and a range of other industry stakeholders on the Food Waste Recycling Action Plan, which aims to increase food waste recycling levels in England through the production of collaborative tools and resources.
For those interested, WRAP has also produced an excellent cost-benefit-analysis tool that helps local authorities that already have separate collections and AD plant operators calculate the benefits to both parties of introducing low-cost intervention measures such as bin stickers and compostable caddy liners, which can help to increase food waste recycling uptake levels. The tool is well worth a look and can produce some surprising results in terms of the extra financial benefit that these interventions can provide. Increasing capture rates from existing collections is particularly important for the AD industry while we wait for increased rollout of food waste collections.
Food waste report and ADBA National Conference
I wanted to take a quick moment to flag a very useful report published earlier this year by the World Biogas Association, of which ADBA is a founder member, and C40 Cities on food waste management in cities around the world. The report is a guide for cities looking to manage their food waste more sustainably, and includes case studies of cities that have introduced separate food waste collections. ADBA contributed to the report, and so while we do have a declared interest, it’s a very useful resource for finding out how other cities around the world have introduced food waste collections and how they’ve benefited from doing so.
We’ll also be discussing food waste recycling and the prospects for mandatory separate food waste collections in England at the ADBA National Conference on 11th December in Westminster. I hope to see many of you there to contribute to what will be a really interesting set of discussions with leading industry and political figures.
I’ll wrap up here, but I’m looking forward to discussing with you all your experiences in food waste recycling and what ADBA can do to support you in your efforts. Please do feel free to follow me and/or ADBA on Twitter, and you can find out more about ADBA on our website.