What to do with our waste food?

14th July 2011


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  • Pollution & Waste Management



Are Scotand's plans to order separate food waste collections the best way to achieve zero waste?

Iain Gulland

Director of Zero Waste Scotland

The starting point for this discussion be recognising that food waste is a major environmental issue. Scottish households waste more than half a million tonnes of food and drink a year, most of which can be avoided. Significant food waste also occurs in the commercial and industrial waste stream, notably in the grocery supply chain.

The embedded carbon and water associated with food waste are costs we cannot afford to bear, so our first priority must be to reduce avoidable waste.

However, where food waste is unavoidable this needs to be seen as an untapped resource that can be used to benefit the Scottish economy.

The Scottish government has a vision of a low-carbon future in which renewable energy and sustainable agriculture are essential elements. Food waste, when captured separately and processed through anaerobic digestion (AD), can be used to support both of these aspirations.

If just half of the available food waste in Scotland was put through AD it could produce enough electricity to power a city the size of Dundee for six months, and enough biofertiliser to replace 10% of Scotland’s current inorganic fertiliser requirements for arable use.

Given the rising costs of power and fertiliser, this is an opportunity to provide a competitive advantage to Scottish farms and longer term there is potentially an even bigger prize in terms of biogas injection to the gas grid.

Alternatives to mandatory collection, including using macerators or other food waste-disposal units, do not provide the same opportunities to create added value from the material. Waste collected via these alternatives will not meet quality standards that enable them to be applied to land, for example. This means carrying all of the cost of collection without the economic gain.

Additionally, disposing of and treating food waste via the sewer adds stresses to the infrastructure for which it was not designed. This carries an environmental cost via leaks, blockages and the energy used in treatment works, and will lead to increased effluent charges to businesses.

In developing the draft regulatory framework for zero waste, the Scottish government has consulted widely with businesses. On the whole, while the logistics of food waste collection may prove challenging for some smaller businesses, there is agreement on the benefits of the proposed approach, including the long-term savings to be made by businesses through avoiding rising landfill costs.

The proposed approach to food waste, separate collection and AD, is absolutely the right one. It will enable the creation of much-needed products and help households and businesses become part of a zero-waste society.

Mick Shaddock

Chair of the Catering Equipment Suppliers Association

I fully support the need to reduce landfill and segregate food waste at source, but in their current state, Scotland’s proposed zero-waste regulations not only add a serious financial burden to Scottish caterers, they also ignore available technology that can solve the issues more cheaply and effectively.

The proposal to mandate kerbside collection ignores the potential of established technologies, such as food waste disposers and composters, to achieve zero-waste objectives and could cost affected businesses £1,500 a year, according to our estimates.

Furthermore, the “one solution” model of kerbside collection of food waste for treatment is a barrier to innovation in developing waste-recycling and disposal technologies.

Technologies that separate, pre-treat or process food waste before it leaves premises significantly reduce the volume of food waste transported by road. By improving the management of dry, solid waste, such technology can help to provide the energy efficiency that is being sought.

Another worry is that health and security could be compromised under the proposals. On-site equipment for food waste disposal already plays a crucial role in Scottish hospitals, where the immediate treatment of food waste offers significant hygiene benefits.

More worryingly, if collection of the food waste is disrupted, for example by weather or industrial action, then a significant health hazard would be created.

The proposals would also render redundant the on-site food waste-treatment equipment already in use at 2,700 Scottish businesses, despite the fact it does a more efficient job at a lower cost. Meanwhile, the taxpayer will have to fund the creation of new food waste-processing plants.

Moreover, the concerns raised in the zero-waste proposals about the potential adverse effects of food waste disposers are misleading and incorrect. CESA – the Catering Equipment Suppliers Association – has provided the Scottish government with robust, international scientific evidence to prove that these technologies deliver an effective, environmentally sound solution.

In larger kitchens, on-site food waste equipment can actually contribute to the establishment’s income. An award-winning composting system at Imperial College, London, for example, achieved payback in less than a year, by recycling more than 50 tonnes of food waste from the campus.

The bottom line is that established food waste-treatment technologies are a better way to achieve the zero-waste targets and position Scotland at the forefront of innovation in waste reduction. What’s more, they provide a solution that’s more environmentally sound, and at a lower cost.


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