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Schedules 1 to 6 agreed to..

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

Business without Debate

coroners and justice Bill (programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

Question agreed to.

delegated legislation

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With the leave of the House, I shall put the Question on motions 6 and 7 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Employment Tribunals

Road Traffic

Question agreed to.

European Union documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

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Second Strategic Energy Review And European Energy Networks

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 11 March (Standing Order No. 41A).

delegated legislation


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Energy Generation (Food Waste)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Ms Butler.)

7.18 pm

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue of increasing importance for this country, which touches on many aspects of public policy. Energy from food waste raises issues of energy security, waste management policy, climate change, land use, food security and the environment in which we all live. The House will be relieved to learn that I do not intend to cover all those topics in detail this evening, as there is simply not enough time.

I wish to focus my remarks on the case for energy generation from food waste, specifically through the process of anaerobic digestion. I should declare a constituency interest right away. Ludlow is rightly famous for the quality of its food, both from local producers and also through the outstanding Michelin starred restaurants in Ludlow town itself, as well as the many other fine places to eat across the constituency. But Ludlow is also fast becoming known for what we do with the food that we produce but cannot eat—the food left on our plate; food waste—both in our homes and in commercial premises and processors.

Since 2007, such waste has been collected by South Shropshire district council and taken to the Biocycle anaerobic digester on the edge of Ludlow, which is operated by Biogen Greenfinch, where it is turned into biogas, which generates heat and electricity. It is the first of only two such plants operating in this country. It is a fitting legacy for South Shropshire district council, which will sadly disappear on the 31 March, that under a Conservative administration it has pioneered the innovative use of this technology to turn waste into electricity.

Anaerobic digestion and the gases produced by natural decomposition as a process can be traced back to the 16th century. While the first construction of an anaerobic digester was apparently in a leper colony in Bombay in 1859, it was English scientists who developed the technology to generate gas for street lighting in Victorian England. I am afraid that, as a nation, we have lost that early technological lead. One of my criticisms of this Government’s supposed enthusiasm for green energy has been the lamentable progress made in recent years in encouraging that technology.

This is a low-tech, low-carbon biological process that happens naturally when bacteria break down organic matter in environments with little or no oxygen. It essentially mimics the workings of a cow’s stomach and produces a biogas made up of around 40 per cent. carbon dioxide and 60 per cent. methane—a greenhouse gas, as hon. Members know, that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It is effectively a controlled and enclosed version of the anaerobic breakdown of organic waste in landfill. It provides an almost ideal methane-mitigation policy, because the methane is captured and has no opportunity to escape into the atmosphere.

Almost any organic material can be processed with anaerobic digestion, including waste paper, cardboard—which is often of too low a grade to recycle, if it has been contaminated by, for example, close proximity to food—grass clippings, leftover food, industrial effluents, sewage and animal waste.

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Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I am pleased to support my hon. Friend, who is my Shropshire neighbour. He has mentioned the various things that can be used in anaerobic digestion. I met the Environment Agency today, which mentioned that slurry is used for those purposes in other European countries. Does my hon. Friend agree—I speak as chairman of the all-party dairy farmers group—that the Government should do more to communicate the potential for putting slurry into those digesters, particularly bearing in mind the difficulties farmers face with nitrates directives?

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and want to put on the record that he does valiant work for the dairy industry through the all-party group. To some extent, he has pre-empted a point that I was going to make, which I will cover now. There is 20 or 30 years’ experience of generating energy through heat from slurry in a process of anaerobic digestion—I believe that the first plants were opened in the 1980s. There are only about 20 or so farm slurry plants in operation, of which four are based in Shropshire or the Shropshire borders. An innovative farmer, Mr. Clive Pugh, who lives within four miles of Bishop’s Castle in my constituency, persuaded about half a dozen farmers to adopt that technology in the early 1990s. He is now investing in generating capacity to turn that into electricity, as well as heat for his dairy parlour. We are, however, way behind many other European countries in this area.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): My hon. Friend may not know this, but I was something of a trailblazer in this field when my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and I invested in an anaerobic facility in Dorset nearly 30 years ago. I am sorry to say that we lost all our money, but there is no doubt that even in those days, the aims and the opportunities were clear. As my hon. Friend has persuasively argued, the science has advanced very quickly, so the opportunities should not be confined to Ludlow, but should be nationwide.

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend who, as so often in matters to do with food, was an early mover in this area. I am sorry to hear that his investment was not as fruitful as it might well be if he were able to make it today.

In other European countries, generating energy from farm waste is significantly more advanced. In Germany, there are about 4,000 plants. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) asked whether the Government should be doing more. Only as recently as last month, they finally produced a vision for anaerobic digestion, which I am sure the Minister will refer to. Their vision is to encourage by 2020 some 1,000 farms across the country to use anaerobic digestion to deal with farm slurry. I applaud that, although it was not the Government’s idea—I cannot claim that it was mine, as it came from the National Farmers Union, which produced exactly that figure in October last year—and welcome its adoption as Government policy.

The process is not quite as efficient for farm slurry as it is for food waste, as the animals, in generating the slurry, consume some of the nutrients that would otherwise be available directly in the food. Some by-products of farm waste, through slurry, are not as nutrient rich for the fertiliser that comes out at the other end, if I may put it that way, whereas food waste has the benefit of
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providing a nutrient-rich fertiliser, which is another reason why anaerobic digestion is a better use of food waste than incineration, due to the quality of the by-product.

Having touched on the Government’s new vision for anaerobic digestion, I should discuss the other aspect, which is that they are looking for 100 commercial plants to use food and other organic materials to generate electricity through anaerobic digestion. They have helped to fund the existing two plants, including the plant in Ludlow. While that is welcome, they have been, to put it generously, slow to recognise the potential of the technology. They have been asleep at the wheel, and I am grateful that they are now catching up to where other parties have reached in seeing the potential of reliable renewable energy from food waste.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman, who is being extraordinarily generous in giving way, agree that one reason why the technology has not taken off as quickly as it should have done is because of difficulties in planning and, perhaps, certain concerns among neighbours locally as to how they might be affected? Examples of good practice would assuage those fears.

Mr. Dunne: The hon. Gentleman is right to a degree in that whenever the word “waste” is attached to a planning application, there is fear or concern among local populations about what the impact might be on residents. I shall come on to describe what happened in Ludlow, so as to give him and the Government some reassurance that, at the right scale, the process not only becomes relatively straightforward to get through in planning terms, but has few of the associated risks to local residents that people fear from other types of energy generation from waste—in particular, from domestic refuse.

That takes me to a description of what happened in Ludlow. The plant began by combining green waste with food waste. As I have said, green waste can go through the same process, but relatively quickly it became clear that the contamination of waste put into green bins in order for it to be digested is a fraught issue. On a visit to the plant, the manager showed me a concrete block that had been placed in a green bin, and old kettles were also placed in green bins. That is not the stated objective of the green bin, but I am afraid that, until people are much more educated about how to deal with recycling and the separation of waste, such errors will arise, wittingly or unwittingly. Such errors pose a significant problem for the efficient operation of the plant, and it was therefore decided quite quickly to focus purely on food waste. As a result, not only domestic collections but commercial waste were used to obtain the necessary volumes.

The plant in Ludlow is on a 0.2 hectare site, and it is capable of processing 5,000 tonnes a year. The original plan was for the immediate population of Ludlow—nearly 10,000 people—to be able to generate enough green and food waste to serve that processing capacity. However, with the focus solely on food waste, that proved insufficient, so the collection is now being made from neighbouring towns. There are currently 7,000 participating households generating food waste from a weekly collection in separate caddies supplied by the local authority.

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The cost of collection is relatively high in the pilot, but the local authority, working with the collection company, Veolia, is considering the possibility of providing a separate collection alongside the existing collection of either green or ordinary domestic waste, which takes place fortnightly in South Shropshire. The great advantage of taking food out of the domestic waste stream is that because of odour and vermin problems, residents become concerned if it is not collected more regularly than every fortnight. That is the main reason for the popular opposition to a fortnightly collection scheme. Putting the waste in a separate container from which it can be collected weekly, along with both green and domestic waste, disposes of the problem and represents a major advantage to residents. Another major advantage is the capture of the odour in the processing building, and specifically in the contained vessel once it is “cooking”. The initial odour problems in the plant have been dealt with quite satisfactorily and relatively quickly, although the plant is within 200 m of the nearest house.

Let me return to the point originally made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). The planning application was supported on a cross-party basis. Although I made a party political point in saying that the Conservatives introduced the scheme, I concede that it was supported by the Liberal Democrats on the local authority, which ensured that this was not a partisan issue and that residents were not stirred up to object to the application. Residents now accept the scheme as part of the fabric of Ludlow, and, as I have said, are beginning to see the benefits of the weekly food waste collection.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the additional benefit that the scheme reduces the number of waste miles. The plant is a prototype, and it could not be replicated across the country on a commercial scale covering 10,000 households. Work needs to be done to determine the most appropriate minimum size, but 30,000 to 50,000 households would probably bring the concept to a commercial level and would be appropriate for most large and medium-sized towns. There would be a significant reduction in both the cost and the environmental damage that would be incurred in the transport of large volumes of waste over large distances to reach the few available landfill sites, which is the current alternative.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I strongly support the concept of anaerobic digestion, particularly if it is used to generate heat rather than electricity. In the context of household collection, however, would it not be better to concentrate on commercial food waste and to encourage householders to compost their food waste at home? That is what I do, using the bokashi and Green Cone systems.

Mr. Dunne: There is clearly a case for composting green wastes in households with the necessary space and capacity, such as those fortunate enough to have gardens, but according to information provided by the Waste and Resources Action Programme, some 17 per cent. of all waste is food waste in one form or another, whether it is commercial or domestic. The domestic component is very significant. It will not be possible to persuade everybody to compost, because that is simply not an option for people living in buildings in multiple occupation, for example. There is a place for composting,
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but we need to look at the whole range of options when trying to generate renewable energy, and this is one significant option that hitherto this country has failed to adopt, for the reasons that I have outlined, and it should be encouraged in the future.

I am coming towards the end of my remarks, as I know the Minister wants to reply and tell us what wonderful things the Government are doing. Before he does so, however, I wish to say that the green energy proposals recently put forward by my colleagues have emphasised that biogas could potentially account for some 50 per cent. of residential gas heating. That is an eminently achievable target, if there is sufficient adoption of the technology across the country. It will require feed-in tariffs and continued use of double renewables obligation certificates, which is the regime that currently applies, but the environmental gains, especially from replacing fossil fuel fertiliser in the agricultural industry, which is a significant generator of greenhouse gases, are enormous. I urge the Minister to do as much as he can to push forward this policy as fast as he can. I would be delighted to welcome him to Ludlow so he can see what we have achieved, as some of his predecessors did.

7.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on drawing this important and timely subject to the House’s attention. Although I may at some future date be able to take up his invitation to visit his constituency, I have to say I know it very well from the days when I used to rattle through it, within the speed limits, on my old in-line-four Honda CB550K on my way back and forth from university every weekend. It is a beautiful part of the country, and it is great to hear about this innovation.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn our attention to the Biocycle anaerobic digester plant, and the Government have identified anaerobic digestion as the preferred method of treating food waste in our waste strategy 2007. Before I forget, may I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) for her intervention? There is a place for composting as well, right at the source, but the Government are certainly very much in favour of anaerobic digestion as one of the ways forward.

The financial help provided towards the development of the Biocycle plant is a prime example of our support for the technology. The hon. Gentleman was understandably full of praise for South Shropshire’s role, and I agree, but I was surprised that he condemned what he implied was the Labour Government’s lamentable record on investment. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs funding covered the costs of the design, build, commissioning and operation of this plant for 8,000 hours, and the original contracted payment was £537,162, and it subsequently increased by £122,158 to give a total of £659,320—and I could go on. Not only in terms of Biocycle but across the board, this Government put significant investment into resources, expertise and money to support such developments.

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