Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood, explains Defra’s consideration of a transitional roll-out of separate food waste collections across England, voicing his concerns about creating yet another “disjointed” national recycling system.
Every year in the UK, more than ten million tonnes of food waste is thrown away – 60% of which, according to WRAP, is considered perfectly edible. While it’s fair to say that waste arises across the entire supply chain, from manufacturing and distribution to retail and hospitality, more than half of this total figure is generated within the home.
Previously, environmental experts were quick to point the finger of blame at the general public – many of whom were considered disinterested in the impacts of their wasteful behaviour and unwilling to change their ways. However, research suggests that this view is far from the case.
Previously, environmental experts were quick to point the finger of blame at the general public.
Indeed, according to a recent survey from Frontiers, consumers are seemingly more environmentally conscious than ever before – especially when it comes to food waste. 66% of respondents admitted to being hugely concerned about the sheer amount of food wasted in the home, with 53% committed to throwing away less than a tenth of what they purchase and 94% using leftovers rather than binning them.
47% admitted to composting food rather than relying on landfill, while only 14% threw away food past its “best before” date. The wasteful consumer of yesterday is fast becoming an inaccurate, dated stereotype.
So why then are more than six million tonnes of food waste still being landfilled by UK householders every year? The answer is simple – a widespread lack of access to the systems capable of tackling the issue, resulting in a growing mountain of food waste piling up in landfill sites already bursting at the seams.
Yesterday’s learnings are tomorrow’s changes
For more than thirty years, waste management decisions have been devolved from a central government level to local authorities, as part of efforts to prevent undue pressure on local budgets. Councils are given autonomy to implement kerbside collections in a manner that they see as most fitting and beneficial to the local area while keeping recycling rates firmly in mind.
However, while the logic seems robust on the surface, this approach has left our national waste management infrastructure disjointed, inconsistent and unnecessarily complicated. While one local authority may collect material streams separately to maximise recycling rates, another directly adjacent may only offer a by-weekly commingled option.
This approach has left our national waste management infrastructure disjointed, inconsistent and unnecessarily complicated.
Consumer confusion is therefore high and recycling rates (as well as material quality) differ wildly from one geography to the next. What’s more, collection systems that are considered more expensive to implement (such as food waste recycling), are often left by the wayside – giving consumers no other option than to continue relying on landfill.
Since launching our Vision:2020 roadmap more than a decade ago, we’ve been lobbying for a national ban on food waste being sent to landfill. In the years since, we’ve been pleased to see commitments from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – all of which have reported impressive progress as a result.
England has always proven more challenging, with continued push back from local authorities and a lack of support from central government. However, as part of new legislation announced within the UK Environment Act 2021, mandated food waste collections at the kerbside are expected to be rolled out nationwide imminently – a significant and sustainable step forward.
Considerations of a “transitional” roll-out
While kerbside collections for households may therefore seem somewhat of a “done deal,” arguments continue about the cost and practicalities of implementing new systems. Despite the positive impact proven by numerous other countries and the long-term benefits of reducing reliance on landfill, councils are fighting hard against the decision – change, it seems, is still considered a challenge for many.
As part of efforts to appease the situation, Defra has written to councils in a bid to understand “barriers” to rolling out food waste collections and how these could be overcome.
The idea has already been raised that the recommended outcome could include specific transitional arrangements, with certain councils given approval to either delay the implementation or adopt them in a different way that better suits their waste landscape.
While we understand the challenges of adopting uniform kerbside food waste collections across England, we are also hugely concerned that these transitional agreements will simply result in the creation of yet another disjointed system.
With local authorities already given a grace period until the end of their existing waste management agreements (some of which stretch far into the future), we’ll still face the challenges of varying systems from council to council.
But forgetting the local authorities, what does this mean for consumers? In short, more confusion, more disruption and more reason not to recycle food waste. It seems as though, despite having taken a step forward, we’re looking to take another backwards.
Defra has written to councils in a bid to understand “barriers” to rolling out food waste collections and how these could be overcome.
Clarity, consistency and uniformity are key. Sending food waste to landfill is a waste management practice of the past and we need to move quickly into the future to prevent the widely-publicised environmental impacts of unnecessarily wasting food.
Most importantly of all, however, we need householders to understand the importance of separating food waste for recycling and provide the systems to achieve this – rather than confusing matters further.
If we fail to do so, we’ll continue to operate a disjointed waste management system that fails to achieve its full potential. Rather than being a world leader, we’ll remain far down the list.
2023 is set to be a hugely important year for the future of waste management. A transitional approach to food waste collections seems damaging at best – we need clarity, commitment and proactivity.
At ReFood, we’re calling for a firm hand when it comes to the implementation of food waste collections – a watered-down approach will result in minimal impact and limited success, all coming at the expense of the taxpayer.
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