By 2025, the way we handle food waste as a country is going to look dramatically different.
Last year, the government announced a huge £295m for English local authorities to start rolling out mandatory food waste collections, which is set to start in 2023.
This is an exciting game-changer for food waste, as we’ll finally start to take advantage of the huge potential for it to be used as an alternative to fossil fuel and chemical fertiliser.
Food waste recycling might seem like science fiction to some (especially those for whom it conjures images of Christopher Lloyd dropping banana skins into the fuel tank of his DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future).
But I assure you that the technology to recycle food waste has been around for a while, and in my opinion, a move to normalising it is long overdue…
SunSkips isn’t my first successful business venture. Before we decided there was a better way to do skip hire in East Anglia, I was busy disrupting the waste management industry with OWL (Organic Waste Logistics).
We founded the company as a solution to the UK’s 12 million tonnes of food waste being pumped into landfills and incinerators, while anaerobic digestion plants are struggling to obtain feedstock to create biofuel and fertiliser.
It was our view that the answer was just sitting there in the bin, and it looks like the government is finally waking up to the fact.
There are huge benefits to properly leveraging food waste for energy and agriculture at a time where fuel prices are skyrocketing and farming costs are reaching unsustainable levels.
And you could argue that these are the least of our problems…
It’s probably worth addressing why the government is bringing forward such a huge amount of funding to tackle food waste.
A lot of people feel that because food waste is biodegradable, it doesn’t really matter if it ends up in landfill because it will eventually rot away anyway.
But putting aside the practical uses for food waste for a moment, organic matter that isn’t being recycled is actually pretty dangerous for the environment.
In Suffolk alone, in excess of 52,000 tonnes of food is thrown away every year, and because it’s not being separated, it currently goes straight to landfill or incineration.
When the food decomposes by itself, it generates methane gas, which is 25 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.
In fact, solving the food waste crisis nationwide would be like removing one in four cars from UK roads, according to Recycle Now.
But in order for proper food waste recycling practices to be adopted by citizens and businesses, the process is going to have to be far easier than the current state of our recycling systems.
One of the biggest reasons people struggle with plastic recycling is because of how complicated it is. There are several different types of plastic and a lot of people are still, understandably, confused about what can and can’t be put out for collection.
A similarly complex solution to food waste recycling has been around for years: composting. But in my humble opinion, it’s not an effective means for solving the wider problem.
Composting is great for gardeners, but it’s overly complicated for the average consumer and without an obvious use for the compost, it’s not an extremely effective use for food waste. And more importantly, you can only compost a small amount of what the average kitchen generates (meat and animal byproducts can’t be composted, for example).
It’s a bit much to ask people to be constantly thinking if packaging is compostable and creating another area in their kitchen to separate it all, but simply redirecting food waste into a separate container shouldn’t be too taxing.
Mandatory food waste collections will effectively simplify organic waste management for people and local authorities by unifying the way it’s managed across England and solving the problem once and for all.
Until now, the conversation around food waste has mostly been on how to avoid wasting food and getting it to food banks before it goes bad, such as stock that supermarkets have deemed unsuitable for sale but is still perfectly safe to eat.
This is all very useful, but the reality is that you can’t prevent food waste 100% of the time.
Manufacturing inevitably produces food waste from trimmings and other bits and pieces that can’t be reused, not to mention machinery and refrigeration breaking down. And of course, hospitality can’t realistically ask customers to be mindful and finish all their food.
It’s in these businesses’ best interests to reduce the amount of waste they’re producing as much as possible because it’s ultimately money down the drain, but there’s always going to be something leftover in the process.
So the time has come for a country-wide solution for getting the most value out of food waste to be put into action – and it can solve far more problems than pollution.
Simply put, food rots in landfills and pollutes the atmosphere, whereas we could be using that same bio-gas as fuel.
Food waste has a high caloric value, so can generate a lot of heat when burned. And at a time when fuel prices are through the roof, it’s hard not to wince at the 12 million tonnes of food waste that’s not being turned into gas for cars and trucks (perfectly viable if they’re properly converted).
The anaerobic digestion process also produces valuable bio-fertiliser, which is far better for the environment than chemical fertilisers.
Sometimes they refer to this process as a “concrete cow” because it’s essentially a synthetic version of a bovine digestive system: food waste is shredded (like a cow chews) and a little liquid is added before it goes into the digester tank (stomach). The waste is heated and stirred before bacteria break it down to produce methane gas, which is pushed through an engine to create energy or injected directly into the gas grid. What’s leftover (digestate) can be pasteurised and used as fertiliser.
So the technology is certainly there, all we need now is a new ecosystem to make sure food is properly diverted to it.
It’s certainly not the process itself.
Cambridge City Council has begun trialling food waste collections for residents, which requires a kitchen caddy, liners and an additional outside caddy for collections.
They’re studying whether the trial will increase recycling and if it reduces the amount that goes into black bins, as well as testing local plants’ ability to compost the biodegradable plastic liners on a large scale.
This is a great step for domestic collections. And for the wider hospitality and food manufacturing industries, there’s an even simpler solution ready to go.
Shopping centres currently have 30 to 40 wheelie bins to collect every day. The way they do things currently requires a lot of transport and security protocols to manage all the coming and going: they’re like entire towns under there because you’ve got to get all the stuff in and out.
A solution like OWL would see food waste pumped into one simple tank that already gets to work on breaking down the food waste before a truck arrives to vacuum it out and take it for further processing.
Unlike wheelie bins, these tanks can be stored on site for up to three weeks, which means the carbon footprint and vehicle mileage are reduced immensely.
So again, the technology is there, leaving only relatively minor logistical challenges in the way of rolling it out nationwide.
What’s really holding up a greener future is bureaucracy.
Long-term private contracts with waste management providers make things complicated when they’re based on current infrastructures and collection practices.
These services are predicated on collecting dry waste, which is a very different thing to collecting and processing food waste, so providers are likely to have been hesitant to mix things up so drastically.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and with new legislation coming in fast, they’ll have to pivot to a new way of doing things or move over to make way for more innovative solutions.
Food waste is such a huge topic, and we’re still in the very early days where no one is quite sure what’s happening or what a future of 100% recycled food waste is going to look like.
But with the new Net Zero plan coming into effect, there’s no time to waste in revolutionising how we manage organic rubbish.
We’ll soon start seeing food waste recycling at home, at workplaces, and at public events. I predict more companies like OWL and similar solutions appearing on the market, as well as traditional waste management services getting onboard fast to keep up.
Food waste recycling is not that hard. It’s just a case of overcoming the bureaucracy and long-term waste management contracts to get a unified, country-wide infrastructure in place.
And in my opinion, this should have happened years ago.
SunSkips does not accept food waste in our containers, but we can refer commercial clients to OWL for a neat, cost-effective solution to food waste that’s 100% recyclable.