Lisa Gilligan, Commercial Partner, and Kirstin Roberts, Waste and Renewables Director at national law firm Freeths, examine mandatory separate food waste segregation and ask if it will actually reduce food waste.
For some time, the UK government has been announcing plans for new waste management strategies to help combat the effects of climate change. Waste reduction and, where that is not possible, using waste as a resource are key ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
With regard to food surpluses and food waste, one strategy will be mandatory food waste reporting by large food businesses in England. The latest strategy is mandatory food waste segregation for all businesses (not just food businesses). As waste is a devolved matter, the timeline for the introduction of these new laws will differ for businesses within Wales than in England.
Food waste segregation requirements
All businesses within England and Wales will have to comply with the new legalisation but those most affected will be within the retail, hospitality, healthcare and education sectors, as they produce a much higher volume of food waste.
Food waste will need to be separated from all other types of waste produced at any business. The new legalisation sets out that:
- All food waste must be separated into different bins for collection.
- Food cannot be sent to landfill or incineration, it must be sent for recycling. The two methods that can be used are composting and anaerobic digestion.
- Macerators (units which chop and flush food down drains using high volumes of water) or liquidising digesters will be banned completely.
- Drying or dewatering systems will still be permitted – these can reduce the volume of your food waste when it comes to collection.
All fees payable for food waste recycling are the responsibility of the business creating it – or whose staff create it.
Wales is closer to the implementation of these rules than England. Currently, the Welsh food waste segregation legalisation is set to come into force from October 2023.
For all businesses operating within Wales, there is also set to be a 5kg exemption. Any business which produces less than 5kg of food waste per week will not have to separate its food waste.
This exemption will need to be closely monitored, especially for businesses which are currently expanding, because as soon as this threshold is reached food must be separated.
[UPDATE 2 May 2023] The date for this coming into force in Wale has now changed to 6 April 2024.
For those businesses operating in England, a time frame is yet to be announced but we can expect the government to follow suit shortly.
Cost and Impacts
The main cost implications will be setting up the correct procedures within each business to easily separate waste and organising a separate collection service for food waste. The transition will be much simpler for those who currently already have similar procedures. Although you will have to organise a separate collection, taking food waste out of general waste collection should reduce your waste collection costs.
Where difficulty may arise is for those individuals who are one of many tenants in a building complex as collaboration with the landlord will be needed to put in place a separate food waste collection service for the building. The question of who has the responsibility for this is not clear in current legalisation.
There will be different enforcement bodies for England and Wales and for the different aspects of the legislation. Natural Resources Wales will regulate the Welsh separation and ban on incineration, whilst in Wales, health inspectors are set to enforce the ban on food going to the sewer. It is yet to be confirmed who will regulate the English legislation.
The most challenging aspect of the legalisation is enforcement. With all businesses within England and Wales being impacted by the new legislation, it will be difficult to monitor compliance, let alone enforce it as a high level of resources would be required.
Such a large budget is unlikely to be allocated to this by the government, which leaves many unanswered questions on how they will ensure food waste is being separated. Enforcing a mandatory reporting system could be an effective alternative in driving compliance, as businesses would be held more accountable. Currently, there are no plans for a reporting system for all; instead, England is currently consulting on an annual food waste reporting but this is for larger food businesses only.
The real impact of the legalisation
Although the legalisation is likely to have some minor impact on the environment, if enforced properly, there is some suggestion that the legalisation is missing the mark on reducing our food waste and its environmental impact.
In the UK less than 1% of carbon emissions related to food comes from the final stage when food ends up in the general waste bin (further information on this can be found here). The main issues relating to food and its environmental impact come from over-purchasing and issues during food production.
Initiatives incentivising people to only buy what they need and solving issues around growing, processing and transporting our food may be more important in reducing food-based carbon emissions.
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