Bone up on waste

By Nicola Cottam

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Anaerobic digestion, Uk

Bone up on waste
For a sector that is under the cosh, new controls on handling waste are making life even more difficult for meat processors. Nicola Cottam reports

Emotions are running high in the meat and poultry processing sectors following the introduction of tighter legislation and controls on the handling of waste. For the red meat sector in particular - fearing its very survival against a flood of cheap imports - it is seen as yet another raft of regulatory burden and unnecessary cost.

While animal by-product, waste and landfill regulations have served to strangle the industry's waste disposal outlets, the EU Waste Incineration Directive (WID) - introduced in January 2006 - really sticks the knife in. The directive states that rendered fat, or tallow, traditionally used to heat boilers used for rendering, is now classed as waste and can only be burnt in boilers at a certain temperature, which excludes a large proportion of rendering facilities.

Most EU countries have objected and agreed that the clause should not be implemented. But it remains to be seen whether the UK will follow the same line.

Alastair Donaldson, executive manager at the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, says: "Most boilers currently in use are not capable of reaching the temperatures stipulated in the directive and it will cost £250,000 per boiler to adapt them sufficiently. This means that many plants will have to run heavy fuel, like diesel, instead of tallow, which is carbon neutral. This legislation is a bureaucratic nightmare; we have spent the last two years trying to untangle it."

In reality the situation has never been the same since the late 1980s when it was decided that meat by-products should be classified as waste. This meant certain parts of the carcass that were previously 'recycled' needed to be disposed of according to regulations, rather than rendered for reuse as animal feed or, in the case of edible offal, exported.

Grampian Foods group environmental advisor Bob Carss says: "The industry is doubly regulated through waste management legislation and animal by-products regulations that have greatly reduced the exit routes of by-products. Under EU and UK law rendered material is now classified as waste which means they have negative value and so we have to discard it."

Waste disposal challenge

The disposal of waste by-products is a massive challenge for the industry because in most cases it is the difference between profit and loss. However, there are fewer and fewer alternatives and with disposal costs on the increase, processors are looking for viable, more affordable alternatives.

"Landfill used to be a cheap alternative but it costs £24 a tonne at the moment and this figure is due to increase by a further £8 per tonne," confirms Carss. "Incineration is also expensive and the industry hasn't been able to send most by-products to landfill since last October due to new regulations."

Rendering is by far the most common method of disposal but composting and anaerobic digestion (a type of composting) are emerging markets - although neither have the infrastructure to cope with large enough volumes to really make a difference at the moment and composting has its drawbacks.

Quality Meat Scotland industry development manager Andy McGowan says: "Composting is an approved method of disposal but the farming community has its reservations. At the moment by-products are composted into arable land but as methods of disposal continue to contract we can see this extending into grazing land - and there is a risk here to cattle and sheep."

Anaerobic digestion, on the other hand, is "flavour of the month" - at least according to Carss. The process involves loading waste by-products into a digester and mixing it with microscopic enzymes to convert the organic waste into fatty acids, hydrogen and acetic acid. The organic acids are converted into two gases - typically 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide - which are burnt to generate power; the hydrogen is cleaned and used to generate electricity. Other liquid and solid digestates produced are used as fertiliser.

"This is a great idea - turning waste into an end product used to generate power," says Carss. "You can't recycle animal by-products and it's not physically possible to reduce the amount of waste from an animal, however you can recover the energy content by converting elements of it into biofuel and through anaerobic digestion; this is slightly better than composting. The problem with anaerobic digestion is that there aren't enough licensed and authorised companies to sustain this method. There is also an element of uncertainty because there is no guarantee about the longevity of the industry and if we switch and it then all falls apart we could be in a bit of a fix. Developments are therefore quite slow."

Renewable energy

In the current climate, any technique that has positive environmental credentials, as well as offering good value, is welcomed by the industry. And processes that create renewable energy, like anaerobic digestion, are fairly high up the waste disposal hierarchy.

Conversion of waste into biodiesel and biofuel are also attracting plenty of attention. Biodiesel is a renewable clean-burning fuel and can be produced from vegetable oil, palm oil, rape seed oil and used cooking oil, as well as meat by-products. The fuel can deliver benefits both for the environment and to vehicle engines. It can be used in conventional diesel engines without any modifications and produces fewer emissions than conventional diesel.

In Europe, biodiesel represents 2% of total transportation consumption (900M gallons) but it is expected to increase to 6% by 2010. In addition, the government's Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) requires that 5% of all fuel sold on UK forecourts must come from renewable sources by 2010. So there is significant market potential.

A number of developments in the UK are being driven by Argent Energy. Its Motherwell plant produces 45,000t of biodiesel per year, sourcing feed materials from meat processors and renderers, like Grampian Foods. The fuel is sold on to refiners who blend it with mineral diesel and subsequently sell it on to fuel suppliers, like Shell and Petroplus.

Argent Energy spokeswoman Maria Limonci says: "The technology has been used at this plant since March 2005. When the BSE crisis hit it instigated a search for new markets for by-products produced by the William Forest rendering plant - acquired by Argent Energy.

"It is an extremely environmentally friendly method and demand for biodiesel is growing. Argent has created a green cycle, using used product to create a green end product."

The biomass route

Meat by-products can also produce biomass fuel to generate electricity. Inetec is a pioneer in this field in the UK, where category 1 (high risk, eg the brain and spinal cord), 2 (carcass and digestive system) and 3 (prepared meat and butchers' meat) waste is churned up in a process called abrasive drying, which syphons off the surface water content. This is vaporised and condensed back into liquid and is then drained directly to a foul sewer, leaving a highly stable dry biomass fuel.

Marketing and communications manager Ed Mant says: "Inetec is the only company in Europe to have developed a process to convert a mixed waste stream into electricity. The technique is both cost effective and environmentally sound. The majority of our business comes from food manufacturers at the moment; we process between two and eight tonnes of waste every day. However there has been growing interest in the technology from meat processors in the last 12 months, mainly because of increasing landfill prices and we are currently building a series of merchant plants to collect and dispose of meat."

Using meat by-products to generate renewable energy is therefore an attractive alternative for processors - not least because of the value it adds.

For example, the value of tallow as a fuel is three times that of its waste disposal costs - £150 versus £50. As McGowan points out: "With fewer routes for disposing of meat by-products, alternatives like biodiesel become more attractive. It is a positive method of disposal that adds value to the products." FM

Profitable lines: Turning a waste into food

The recovery of animal by-products for export could provide significant untapped opportunities for UK meat processors, according to the Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF). On behalf of the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), the RMIF is trying to encourage better practices within the gut rooms of primary processing plants so that the "fifth quarter" (ie the non-skeletal meat, like the oesophagus and backside) can be sold in export markets.

RMIF business improvement specialist Christine Walsh says: "There are some simple changes that are easy to put in place and can make significant savings. At one abattoir by giving people clear roles and responsibilities, reducing the amount of double-handling and creating a clear flow of product through the gut room, we reduced the costs of Category 1 waste from £3.20 to £2.19 per carcass.

"That may seem only a small amount for a 200 throughput per day abattoir, but it adds up to £1,000 per week."

There is also a good argument for more prolific harvesting of edible co-products for the UK and export markets. Edible co-products are the parts of animals deemed unfit for human consumption but which can later be processed for use in human food, like sheep intestines' sausage casings and stomach fat processed into lard. UK gut rooms are mainly used for the disposal of material as waste and not for human consumption and there is less emphasis on hygiene and structure than in the rest of Europe.

In a report on edible co-products, Jim Scudamore, professor of Livestock and Veterinary Public Health at the Faculty of Veterinary Science at Liverpool University suggests that the potential for the sale of edible co-products is high. He cites sausage casings as one market where headway could be made.

"The sausage casings industry estimated in 2002 that up to 15% of sausages were made with natural sheep casings, mainly derived from the UK sheep flock. These were generally at the top end of the market. Another 10-15% used pig casings. The remaining 70-75% of sausages were sold skinless or used synthetic casings. This contrasts with Europe where 20% of the casings are artificial and 80% are natural. The main player is Germany due to the quantity and variety of sausage production."

Scudamore estimates that around 14M sheep casings are produced each year with 5M (36%) used for UK domestic production and 9M (64%) exported to Europe. The MLC estimates that the turnover in the casings processing sector was £24M in 2002. The pig casing market in the UK is currently dominated by imported Chinese product.

Key Contacts

  • Argent Technology 01560 482683
  • Grampian Foods 01506 843300
  • Inetec 01656 746439
  • Quality Meat Scotland 0131 4724040
  • Red Meat Industry Forum 01908 844191
  • Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers 01738 562736

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