Food waste to landfill hots up

By Alyson Magee

- Last updated on GMT

11Mt of food is landfilled
11Mt of food is landfilled

Related tags Food waste Anaerobic digestion

Reducing the amount of waste food businesses produce enhances their bottom lines as well as their reputations, as Alyson Magee discovers

Key points

For many suppliers of environmental management solutions to food and drink manufacturing, government inaction in England is hampering progress towards reducing food waste sent to landfill. While back in 2007, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) set its members a goal of reducing food waste sent to landfill to zero by 2015, the Food Manufacture​ ‘State of the Industry Survey 2015’ highlighted only 36% of those polled as having hit the target.

The FDF itself takes a more optimistic view of progress made, claiming many progressive manufacturers have already reached the target and moved onto further green goals. However, for companies such as Clearfleau and Biffa, supplying anaerobic digestion (AD) technology for converting food waste into resources, all regions of the UK need to come on board to tackle food waste.

“Scotland is banning biodegradable food waste to landfill, and Wales is going down the same track but England is not,”​ says Richard Gueterbock, director at Clearfleau. “Why the last government, which claimed to be the greenest ever, hasn’t done it is puzzling. People need a stimulus to change what they’re doing.”

Dr John Casey, md of the Energy Division at Biffa, which lays claim to the largest AD infrastructure in the UK, is also calling for action. Despite the best efforts to tackle an estimated 11Mt of food waste landfilled in the UK every year, he says: “While such initiatives remain optional and largely unsupported by legislation, there is no obligation to sign up.”

Zero waste to landfill (Return to top)

FDF set the zero target as part of its Five-fold Environmental Ambition, and plans to launch a revised version in early 2016. Its latest progress report cites a drop in food and packaging waste sent to landfill by its members from 17% in 2006 to a current 3%.

“To put this into perspective, of the 139,000t of food and packaging waste produced at responding sites in 2012, only around 4,000t was landfilled,”​ says David Bellamy, environment policy manager at FDF. “Of this, 90% was mixed food and packaging waste. Food waste on its own only accounts for 4t of that total, meaning most of our members have effectively hit zero already in terms of this waste stream.”

With recent research citing Britain as wasting the most food in Europe, and landfill costs at around £100 a tonne, reduction and recovery of waste makes environmental and financial sense.

“You don’t need to trade principles for profit,” ​says Sterling Crew, head of technical at Kolak Snack Foods. “Sustainable ethics and sound business performance are not mutually exclusive.”​ Kolak introduced a ‘KoGreen’ strategy three years ago, recognising demand from retailers and consumers for better environmental management, the potential savings involved, and sustainability as “the right thing to do”.

Sending food waste to landfill is essentially “pouring money into a big hole in the ground somewhere,” ​says Crew, after Kolak achieved zero waste to landfill last year. The crisp and snack manufacturer invested in a new £15M snack factory, or “green cathedral”,​ two years ago. Less water is used overall, while starch is recovered from water for wallpaper paste, waste cooking oil goes into biodiesel and food waste goes into animal feed or AD.

“Any business with green aspirations must have sustainability at the heart of the business as part of the decision-making process,” ​says Crew. “Not as an add on.”

First milk AD plant (Return to top)

Clearfleau is developing an innovative AD plant at a First Milk creamery in rural Cumbria, in partnership with Renewables Unlimited. Scheduled for completion in early 2016, it is expected to be the largest on-site AD plant in the European dairy sector.

The new plant will convert the creamery’s whey permeate into bio-methane for use by the factory and the local gas grid network, with an expectation of reducing the site’s energy costs by 25% and removing 7,000t of carbon from the supply chain annually.

“Every food and beverage company produces residues from their manufacturing which is potential feedstock for AD, be it whey from cheese production or pot ale from distilling which can be converted into energy and fed back into the factory,”​ says Gueterbock.

Food recycling specialist SugaRich, meanwhile, works with many well-known brand names across the industry including crisp and snack producer Tayto, which used its IT-based monitoring system SugaTrak to reduce its food waste costs by over a quarter in three months.

“Demand has grown in the last 10 years, and exponentially in the last five, with companies realising by-products can be used to get, not the same price as food, but certainly a portion of that,”​ says Paul Featherstone, group director of SugaRich.

Another initiative involves Cattlegate Farm in Enfield near London installing a new AD plant to convert 27,000t of London’s food waste, previously destined for landfill, into renewable electricity and agricultural fertiliser. HRS Heat Exchangers is supplying a digestate concentration system from Willen Biogas for the project, with the farm set to save an annual £90,000 in fertiliser costs, while the plant will produce 1.5MW of renewable electricity for the grid, equating to carbon dioxide equivalent savings of around 21,000t a year.

Government in firing line (Return to top)

Drawing criticism for its lack of legislation supporting landfill reduction in England, the government has also come under fire this summer following moves to withdraw from renewable energy incentives.

In his summer budget, chancellor George Osborne announced that exemptions for renewables under the Climate Change Levy were to be removed. The news was met with dismay by both suppliers of renewables technology and companies planning to implement it.

The move would reduce revenue by around £5 per MWh, according to the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) and, based on the 2.2TWh of electricity generated by the AD industry, would cost industry an estimated £11M a year.

In July, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) launched a consultation on the removal of pre-accreditation from the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) “to limit the risk to bill payers of a deployment surge”.​ And then, at the end of August, DECC published a consultation on its review of the FIT scheme which leaves AD tariffs unchanged but proposes a cap on the overall budget of £75M–£100M from January 2016 to 2018/19.

FIT pre-accreditation is vital for the continuing success of the AD sector, says Charlotte Morton, chief executive of ADBA, due to the industry’s long development times.

The ADBA is also concerned about the impact of the proposed FIT scheme budget limitation on investor certainty and further deployment.

“The FIT consultation proposes restricting support for anaerobic digestion to just 17 new plants next year ​– which would effectively mean an 80% cut in investment for an industry which deployed 89 clean baseload power plants in 2014,”​ said Morton.

“It will lead to higher consumer bills in the long-term, a greater reliance on energy sourced from volatile parts of the world, and an uncertain future for UK farming resilience, all in the year when the prime minister wishes to take his stand as a global leader in pledging substantial carbon reduction targets.”

Stephen Reeson, head of climate change and energy policy at FDF, says: “Policy and regulatory uncertainty has, and continues to, adversely affect operator confidence to make renewable energy investment decisions, as do concerns over the availability of long-term supply contracts for sustainably sourced biomass.”

Set to suffer (Return to top)

HRS Heat Exchangers highlights that, while AD is set to suffer from the incentive reduction, it only accounts for 3.5% of electricity generated under the scheme with solar photovoltaic projects dominating activity.

“It’s a bit disappointing,” ​says Sterling Crew, head of technical at Kolak Snack Foods. “Incentives gave a clear message it’s the right thing to do and some people might perceive their removal as saying it’s no longer the right thing to do.”

Richard Gueterbock, director at Clearfleau, says: “Uncertainty over incentives is not helping and it doesn’t back up what government is saying they want industry to do. There’s a bit of a disconnect.”

However, Paul Featherstone, group director of SugaRich, has a different take on incentives, which he says have unfairly favoured certain sectors such as AD while, for example, recovering food waste for animal feed received no such support.

Whereas the waste recovery option creates a circular food chain, incentives have encouraged some operators to grow barley or maize purely for AD, he says.

Featherstone is chairman of the European Former Foodstuff Processors Association, and says his counterparts in other European countries share the complaint over an unfair playing field.


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