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22 May 2007 : Column 421WH—continued

22 May 2007 : Column 422WH

Food Waste to Energy

1.30 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured today’s debate, under your guidance, Mr. Hancock. It is important that we understand and are aware of the matter before us. The UK produces more than 17 million tonnes of food waste each year. I submitted a parliamentary question today seeking an assessment of the food waste generated by the 13 outlets in the parliamentary estate—a third of the UK’s waste comes from large-scale food manufacturers, and I do not expect the House to have an equivalent wastage.

With many people turning to ready meals and packaged food, the problem of food and package waste has exploded over the past 10 years. In fact, the British might waste more food than any other nation in throwing out 30 to 40 per cent. of all the produce bought and grown each year, according to research. Figures collated by the Government, supermarkets, processors and farmers show that modern food production methods might appear efficient, but the reality is that large-scale manufacturing and rigid supply chains are creating significant quantities of waste.

Separate Government figures show that some 17 million tonnes of food, worth up to £20 billion a year, are being put into landfill, even though approximately 25 per cent. of it could be eaten safely by people or animals, or turned into compost or, in this case, energy. The cost of transporting that waste is thought to be more than £175 million a year.

In seeking today’s debate, my aim was to highlight a unique technology developed by Inetec, a company in my constituency, and to seek solutions to the problems it faces in rolling out and developing that major contribution to energy and landfill problems. Inetech was formed in 1997 to address the problem facing large-scale food manufacturers with food and non-recyclable packaging waste. I should like to recognise the financial support from the Welsh Assembly and the grants gained by the company to support its research and development, including two Department of Trade and Industry smart awards.

Inetec’s research discovered that food waste and its non-recyclable packaging contained a high energy value that was being squandered. The waste stream was discovered to be a valuable means of generating renewable energy, allowing an on-site energy recovery system to be placed alongside a food processor, resulting in a reduction in fossil fuel usage and greenhouse gases, saving on transport and landfill costs, and increasing bio and food security.

The technology is known as abrasive drying and, explained simply, involves the water contained within food being removed to a very low level, after which the food and packaging waste is loaded into a vessel where it is macerated against itself, while heat is applied gently. As the waste warms, moisture held within it becomes exposed and evaporates. The vapour is drawn out of the vessel and run through a condensing unit to convert it back to liquid. The liquid has a near-neutral pH, so it can be discharged straight to a foul sewer without the requirement for further treatment. After
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the batch process, a powdery biomass fuel remains, similar in appearance to coffee grains. The whole process takes about 24 hours to complete.

The technology was developed via two commercial operations: one with Greggs bakery, in which bakery and food sandwich waste was processed, and a second with a pedigree chicken hatchery in which eggs and dead chicks were processed. After thousands of test runs, the technology has proved highly successful in processing waste as different as supermarket waste, chicks, cows’ stomachs, offal, fish, airline waste, bakery waste, oil-laden sludge and many other forms of waste too attractive to mention.

Britain has a large work force employed in food production who could be offshored unless production, and bio and food safety costs can be reduced and a viable alternative to landfill found. Drawing on those two problem areas, Inetec has two lines of progress. The first is working with individual food producers, such as Ethnic Cuisine, which produces Chinese ready meals for Sainsbury’s. Food and packaging waste will be used to provide heat and energy for the plant, thus reducing its carbon footprint by one third and reducing the need for electricity drawn from the grid and fossil fuels—an option that perhaps the House of Commons could pursue.

The second line is to develop a UK-wide network of 10 large-scale Inetec plants, using biomass prepared in the Inetec process that is converted to synthetic gas and then to renewable electricity. Each plant will generate 21 MW of electricity from biomass, and a further 5 MW of thermal energy by-product. Each site will prevent 500 tonnes of food waste and packaging per day—1.5 million tonnes per year—including food-contaminated packaging, from going to landfill.

We know that we must find alternative means of providing power. Energy consumption is continuing to rise at a staggering rate and the population continues to grow. The world’s energy demands are predicted to reach an all-time high by 2050. We know that renewable energies are needed, and biofuels have emerged as a viable means of generating large quantities of energy from sources that previously have been squandered. Landfill is an option that is rapidly running out; landfill sites are unpopular alongside local communities and generate great controversy.

Food producers, hotels, supermarkets and households could benefit from the Inetec process, with communities benefiting from energy provided from their food and packaging waste by a local Inetec site. With the recently announced rise in landfill tax, which will lead to a substantial increase in food waste and packaging disposal costs, this novel technology becomes even more financially attractive.

During a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee visit to Germany, we saw such small-scale energy-producing plants utilised to provide energy in small villages in southern Germany. If such a scheme was adopted and centres placed alongside towns, it is conceivable that as much as 75 per cent. of a town’s electricity requirement could be provided by the waste stream that it generates. That is especially relevant following the announcement of the development of five eco-towns by 2020.

For companies such as Inetec to be successful, we must remove the barriers faced in rolling out this new
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technology. Although the Government announced yesterday that they will simplify the planning process for large projects, smaller proposals such as Inetec’s still face problems with regulations, procedures and planning policy. A major problem is the time scale and cost of meeting necessary approvals. The planning system is slow, very expensive and risky, with Inetec having to spend £2 million on the planning application for its first proposed plant, which could ultimately be refused.

The slow and expensive nature of planning permission must also be viewed alongside the time and cost of obtaining a pollution prevention and control licence and national grid connection. Those hurdles need to be jumped with each new planning or licence application at a new site. Each application starts from a zero base with no recognition of past success and past examination of the issues concerning the application.

In the UK, the cost of creating a connection to the grid is dependent on a price dictated by regional electricity companies. The purchase price of the electricity is set by the power companies. In Germany, during the Select Committee visit, I found that the Government set low connection and high sale prices, which has successfully fostered a growing alternative energy supply industry. The cost of connection to the grid must be paid upfront before the planning consent is gained, possibly adding £1.1 million to the gamble for success.

Inetec and its novel technology have received huge interest from many of the largest food production companies in the UK, such as Northern foods and Greencore, but it still finds itself receiving little assistance from the Government and is stuck trying to navigate through the complex legislation and planning regulations.

We know, and have known for generations, that people produce waste. Our archaeology and our understanding of past generations is often based on the uncovering of waste sites and seeing the food, utensils and packaging—the earthen-based vessels—that archaeologists uncover. However, we can change how much we produce, how we manage it and what we do with it.

If we are to adopt a renewable energy-based industry in the UK, we must resolve the question of how the potential of such an industry can be harnessed, by reviewing the current barriers of regulation, planning and processes, while retaining the protection that they afford to local communities. I am aware that the Government will announce a greater concentration on food waste in the energy White Paper that is coming soon. There are those who would say that this debate is perhaps one or two days too soon, but better that than one or two days too late. If I am to applaud the energy White Paper, it will also, as I hope, announce initiatives to liberate innovative uses of waste to generate heat and power, so that food can provide energy not only for the body, but for the home and for industry.

1.41 pm

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) acknowledges, the timeliness of the debate is extraordinary, given that
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yesterday the Government’s planning White Paper was published—she raised a number of planning issues in connection with the company in her constituency—that tomorrow we will see the long-awaited energy White Paper, and that on Thursday the new waste strategy will be published. I hope that, if she is able to, she will be present in the main Chamber to listen with interest to what my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Trade and Industry have to say on those two policy areas, on which we have not yet made announcements.

That puts me in a slightly difficult position, because if my hon. Friend’s debate had taken place a week later—rather, two weeks later, because of next week’s recess—I might have been able to say more on the issue. However, given the timing of her debate, she can perhaps claim some of the credit for the announcements when they come later this week. I hope that she and other Members who take a close interest in these very important issues will be encouraged by what the Government propose to announce.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on championing not only a very good local firm in Bridgend as the constituency MP, but the whole issue of our environmental sustainability, of our management of waste in particular, and of the potential for generating renewable energy from waste streams. I also pay tribute to the work that she is doing in trying to persuade this place to be a bit greener, which is a worthy cause. I always think that when we are trying to persuade the country to do better on the environment, it is important that we can lead by example.

My hon. Friend is right to portray the challenge that we face. According to our latest figures, about 17 per cent. of municipal solid waste is waste food. It was estimated in a recent report that, on average, each person in this country wastes more than £400-worth of food every year—quite a scandalous figure, in my view. Our first priority, of course, should be to prevent as much as possible of that waste from being produced. We shall announce measures on waste prevention in the waste strategy on Thursday. Also and as my hon. Friend acknowledged, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his most recent Budget announced a substantial increase in the landfill tax escalator, which acts as one of the main incentives for businesses and local authorities to divert waste from landfill. I hope that that will help companies such as Inetec, in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

There is a variety of ways in which food waste could be put to much better use. My hon. Friend has described very well the work that Inetec does in her constituency. If that company has not yet had the opportunity to talk through some of these issues with people from either my Department or, as it is largely a devolved issue, the Welsh Assembly, I would be happy for it to talk to my officials about what potential there may be for the company across the UK more widely.

Mrs. Moon: I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that offer, which I welcome. Inetec is based in my constituency, but it plans to roll out the 10 new large-scale electricity generating plants across the UK, so it would be particularly helpful if such a meeting could take place with his officials.

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Mr. Bradshaw: I am sure that my officials, very over-burdened as they are at the moment, would be delighted to arrange that.

I noted the points that my hon. Friend made about the problems of the planning system. One of the announcements that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made yesterday will, we hope, help to ease the planning process for such significant environmental waste management projects. We can have all the right waste management policies in the world, but if, because of the planning process, local authorities and businesses cannot establish the recycling facilities, the energy-from-waste facilities, the anaerobic digestion facilities and the other facilities that my hon. Friend talks about, there is no doubt that we will have a real problem not only with meeting our landfill diversion targets—with the resultant fines for local authorities, which would not be popular in her constituency—but with meeting our environmental goals.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of diverting more of our waste away from landfill. I think that we are third out of all 25 countries, or out of the old EU countries, in terms of our reliance on landfill, and although our reliance has decreased significantly in recent years, we need to do an awful lot better. Food waste, as my hon. Friend also rightly says, is a major source of methane. If food waste goes to landfill, it can rot down into methane, which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases—21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

As I said, we will announce a number of measures in the waste strategy on Thursday, in particular to target food collection from households and to encourage local authorities to extend separate food collections. Research shows that where that happens, it is much easier to re-use, recycle, compost or divert into a new technology, such as Inetec’s, that food waste, and to make a valuable resource out of it. Exciting things are on the way.

If I may, I shall say a little about anaerobic digestion, because that is another technology that has huge potential. Without being a technical expert and without having studied Inetec’s technology, I suspect that my hon. Friend may also be interested in some of the measures that we hope will be in the energy White Paper tomorrow to encourage these alternative technologies. We hope that changes to the renewables obligation certification scheme will serve as a major boost to anaerobic digestion and to other technologies to help to manage food waste. I cannot remember whether my hon. Friend has any rural areas in her constituency, but anaerobic digestion also has major potential for dairy and other livestock farmers, who may be worried about what they will do with all their slurry when the nitrates directive kicks in. There is massive potential for a win-win situation in terms of sustainable environmental management of farms and increasing farmers’ incomes by using slurry as a positive fuel in some of these technologies.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the way that we collect waste is intimately linked to the way in which it can be processed, and thus to the value that we can extract from it, whether as a recyclate or as an energy source. Nowhere is that more true than with household waste collection. There has been an awful lot of
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ill-informed comment in the press in recent weeks on that issue. We shall say more about it in the waste strategy, but I can say, without revealing too much of the detail, that the objective of that strategy is to pursue the course that I think my hon. Friend and her colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee would endorse. It is to move away from our reliance on landfill, to stop treating waste as waste and to treat it as a resource, and to try to move this country to a position where we do not accept, as we have in the past, a throwaway society. We need to stop throwing away into landfill anything that has a useful or valuable potential, because that not only contributes to greenhouse gas emissions but means that we are constantly using virgin materials—many of which, such as wood and oil, are from the developing world—to generate energy when we could be generating it, as my hon. Friend rightly says, from the waste that we all produce.

I was interested to hear my hon. Friend say that there was the potential for 75 per cent. of a given town’s or city’s energy to come from waste. That sounds like a high figure to me, but I will certainly look at it. If it is right, it will make even more strongly the argument that we will make when we publish our energy White Paper tomorrow and our waste strategy on Thursday.

In summary, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important topic. I have tried to explain what the Government believe can be done to join up our policies on waste, energy, biomass and planning, and we will see a good example this week of not only joined-up government, but very active government. A lot has been said in recent weeks and months about the Government’s being adrift or in limbo during this period of transition, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has certainly been hyperactive, not only on the waste strategy, but on the Climate Change (Effects) Bill and so forth. This week, a whole tranche of new policies will be published that are vital to our economic and environmental futures. Indeed, that will happen against the background of a policy vacuum on the other side of the House, but I will leave that for others to judge. When my hon. Friend sees the
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strategies that will be published tomorrow and on Thursday, I am sure that she will welcome them in her usual constructively critical way.

Mrs. Moon: Although my constituency does have incredibly large rural areas, one thing that I also hope to hear over the next few days is that the Government will not only look at the anaerobic digestive system, which my hon. Friend mentioned, but ensure that grant is available to support technologies such as Inetec’s. We must not go down only one possible energy source route, with anaerobic systems being the only ones that we look at and support.

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend will have to study the details of the energy White Paper very closely. Not being an expert on the technology that she talked about, I am afraid that I cannot pre-empt what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will say tomorrow. However, it is certainly the Government’s desire to encourage all sorts of innovative technologies that have an environmental benefit.

The technology that my hon. Friend mentioned has particular benefits in terms of dealing with a mixture of materials, including food waste and packaging waste, because they can all be dealt with together. That is slightly separate from composting and anaerobic digestion, which involve separating food waste from other waste. The company that she mentioned therefore has some niche potential, and my officials advise me that that it is perfectly possible that it will benefit from the announcements that will be made later this week. However, without knowing some of the figures for biomass content and so forth, it is difficult to make a judgment today.

If my hon. Friend is not happy with what I have said, she should remember that we are talking about a White Paper, and that things are never set in stone. I am sure that she looks forward to debating the issues that the White Paper will spark between its publication and the next election.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Two o’clock.

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