Food waste in England Contents


106.In the UK, in 2015 alone, £13 billion of edible food was thrown away from households. In total that suggests 7.3 million tonnes of food went in the bin, which WRAP said, if prevented, would have had the environmental benefit of taking one in four cars off the road.101

107.In this Report we have examined some of the ways food waste could be prevented or reduced. This Chapter focuses on the unavoidable food waste—waste created as part of food production such as banana skins, teabags, and egg shells. Some of our witnesses told us that recycling unavoidable food waste, either by anaerobic digestion or by composting, would provide a sustainable method of extracting value and turning such waste into a resource.102

Anaerobic digestion

108.Anaerobic digestion (AD) is the process of turning food waste into energy. It is a natural process that captures biogas (a mixture of carbon dioxide (CO) and methane). This gas is released as microorganisms break down rotting organic materials. AD also produces digestate (a nitrogen-rich fertiliser). The biogas can be used directly in some engines, burned to produce heat, or can be cleaned and used in the same way as natural gas or as a vehicle fuel. The energy produced can be fed directly into the National Grid. The digestate can be used as a renewable fertiliser or soil conditioner.

109.The Government has been supportive of AD. Defra and the Department for Energy and Climate Change made a commitment to increase energy produced from waste through AD in June 2011 in the ‘Anaerobic Digestion Strategy and Action Plan’. The plan stated that AD offered a “local, environmentally sound option for waste management”.103

110.In the last few years the AD industry has grown rapidly and there are approximately 107 dedicated waste plants in the UK.104 Many of our witnesses supported anaerobic digestion, and recognised that it should be championed for food that is not fit for human consumption.

111.However, Bio Collectors told us that AD plants were under-used with many operating at around 50% capacity. They told us that AD was “widely accepted as the ‘greenest’ method of recycling unavoidable food waste” and as it came higher up on the waste hierarchy than incineration, there was “no reason that the huge capacity now available across the UK should not be utilised”.105


Separate food waste collections

112.On 13 September 2016 WRAP published ‘A framework for greater consistency in household recycling in England’.106 Among other things, this recommended separate collection of food waste to be sent to anaerobic digestion.

113.There are currently no legal requirements for separate food collections in England. The waste collection authority for an area (usually the local authority) takes the lead in recycling operations, and decisions on collection regimes are for local councils to make.

114.Food waste collection has one of the lowest capture rates in England (with about 10% of waste being recycled).107 The Local Government Association’s paper on ‘Meeting EU recycling targets’, published in May 2015, stated that nearly half of councils in England offered a food waste collection together with garden waste, but it also stressed that “given reducing local authority budgets it is unlikely that enough councils will either be able to maintain or add collection of food waste unless it becomes more cost effective to do so”.108

115.We heard that local authorities could struggle with the costs associated with implementing separate food waste collections, and participation rates by householders could be unsustainable. For example, Luton Borough Council stopped its separate food waste collection in March 2013 as it was no longer financially viable to operate it, due to falling volumes of food waste collected.109

116.Between 2007 and 2009, WRAP provided funding and technical support to 21 local authorities to carry out trials of separate food waste collections. The studies found that weekly collections of food waste were more successful where residual waste (rubbish not able to be recycled, re-used or composted) was collected less frequently. However, the Local Government Association said that reductions of residual waste collections were not always popular.110

117.Dr Marcus Gover, Chief Executive Officer of WRAP told us that there were two factors impacting the rates of food waste recycling: “One is the infrastructure for recycling food, food waste collections, and the other is the use of them. You need both of them to increase recycling. Currently, 44% of households in England have access to a food waste recycling service, so half the households can recycle food. We could make that a lot better”.111

118.Access to food waste recycling services is far better in the devolved nations. In Scotland, local authorities are required to provide separate food waste collections in non-rural areas. In Wales, there are mandatory local authority targets for recycling, re-using and composting household waste (including food waste). 99% of households were provided with separate food waste collection services in 2015. WRAP noted that “In Wales, pretty much every single household can recycle food and they probably recycle twice as much food as England”.112

119.The graph below illustrates how the provision of household waste collections across the UK has changed since 2008. It can be seen that a significantly lower percentage of households in England are provided with a food waste collection than in the devolved nations.

Figure 3: Percentage of households with a food waste collection (separate or mixed with garden) 2007–08 to 2014–15

120.WRAP told us that simple steps could be taken to improve the use of the existing systems. It had discovered that food bin liners had made a big difference to participation: “Where we have done trials and provided liners, use of it has gone up”.113 WRAP had also found that providing stickers which said, “If it is food, use the other one” for the bins was a “quite effective” method in reminding people to use the bins correctly”.114

121.Hampshire County Council told us that only one collection authority in Hampshire currently collected food waste. It explained that the Council was committed to an integrated waste management system from the mid-1990s which gave the Council limited flexibility and cash to manoeuvre.115 Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority said that the fact that only 50% of authorities were engaged with food waste collections was due to “existing contracts and, basically, finances”.116

122.Hampshire County Council told us that voluntary initiatives could only “achieve so much”, although it noted that the effect of legislation and/or mandatory targets could be limited:

Imposing food waste targets on local authorities […] would be difficult as it would have the potential to conflict with recycling and recovery processes and may encourage the wrong behaviour.117

123.The Environmental Services Association supported separate food waste collections for local authorities and businesses, although it stated that local authorities were best placed to decide their collection service. If these were to be mandatory, it stated that these should be accompanied by a TEEP (technical, environment and economical practicality) requirement:

The design of waste collection schemes is complex and depends on factors such as the demographics, geography, housing stock and proximity to treatment facilities of a given local area. There is “no one size fits all” collection system which works most effectively in all circumstances, and so mandatory separate food waste collection without TEEP could therefore introduce significant burdens for some local authorities.118

124.Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority agreed that legislation had a role, but cautioned that it would have to be designed carefully to avoid perverse outcomes, for example, chasing recycling targets ahead of waste prevention and reuse.119

125.The Minister told us that she was “slightly disappointed” to hear that one of the councils, that undertook very limited recycling, had recently signed an extension of its contract to continue that arrangement. She told us that Defra could do more “in working with our delivery partner, WRAP, and the LGA” to improve household recycling.120 She highlighted that whilst “the highest performing councils usually undertake a separate or combined food waste collection” even some of the lowest performing councils were taking steps to try and do so.121

126.In May 2016, Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd (an environmental consulting company) published ‘The Real Economic Benefit of Separate Biowaste Collections’.122 This looked at the comparative costs and benefits of different approaches to managing household biowaste. The study looked at different collection and treatment systems including schemes in which food and garden wastes were collected separately from one another and schemes in which they were collected mixed. The report concluded that collecting food waste separately at kerbside and weekly could increase the capture of food, would help keep processing costs for food waste to a minimum and was overall the more financially and environmentally attractive option.

127.Across England there is considerable disparity regarding the waste services provided to households. Food waste is not consistently collected. Food waste that could be turned into energy through anaerobic digestion is being sent further down the waste hierarchy. We are sending waste to landfill that could help power the National Grid and could provide a good agricultural fertiliser.

128.On balance, we conclude that local authorities should remain responsible for addressing the specific challenges and barriers to increasing food waste collections that they face at a local level. However, guidance and best practice should be shared at a national level in order to move towards a standardised approach and to assist local authorities to improve their individual performance. The incoming Government must examine opportunities to incentivise local authorities.

129.We recommend that the incoming Government works closely with WRAP and Local Authorities to ensure that separate food waste collections are offered to as many households as possible within England. Local authorities must look at the opportunities to introduce separate food waste collection when new waste contracts are put in place.

130.We recommend that the incoming Government considers a national strategy to ensure a consistent collection of waste and recycling across England.

Food businesses

Separate food waste collections

131.It is estimated that 3,415,000 tonnes of waste are disposed of in the food sector each year. Sending this quantity of food waste to AD would abate 3.86 million tonnes COequivalent per year.123

132.The provision of food waste collection for businesses is variable. For example, 19 councils in England provided a dedicated commercial food waste collection in 2015, with commercial and industrial waste chiefly processed by private companies. Commercial waste management contractors also offer food waste collections.

133.Some of the written evidence stated that the devolved nations were “leading the way” in developing policies to reduce food waste.124 The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 introduced a requirement for food businesses to separately collect food waste, as did the Food Waste Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015. Both countries introduced these changes in two phases, targeting large food waste producers (over 50kg per week) first, before extending the legislation to smaller food waste producers (between 5kg and 50kg of food waste per week).

134.The overall waste strategy for Wales ‘Towards Zero Waste’, includes ‘The Food Manufacture, Service and Retail Sector Plan’ which sets out a co-ordinated approach to improve the resource management of both food waste and food packaging.125

135.BEIS said that the “biggest opportunities for dealing better with food waste” were in the hospitality and food service sectors.126 It noted that the Scotland experience had shown that placing a clear legal requirement on businesses to separate food waste increased the amount of food waste captured from this sector.

136.ADBA told us that it encouraged the introduction of a statutory duty for businesses to segregate food waste. It said that a mandatory requirement on food businesses to separate food waste would significantly change the collection market for this material, and would likely enable them to make savings that were less likely to be achieved without legislation.127

137.On asking the Minister’s view regarding the need for a mandatory requirement on businesses to separate food waste, Dr Coffey told us that she would be watching the impact of the legislation in Scotland “with interest”.128

138.The availability of the separate collection of food waste from mixed waste is an important part of diverting food waste from disposal. We believe that separate food waste collections from food businesses offer an opportunity to divert waste from lower down the waste hierarchy.

139.We recommend that the incoming Government requires food businesses and retailers to separate food waste. This should be done through a phased approach, applying first to businesses that produce more than 50kg of food waste per week, then applying to smaller food businesses that produce between 5kg and 50kg of food waste per week.

101 WRAP, “Love Food Hate Waste campaign”, accessed 20 April 2017

102 Veolia (FOW0018), Bio Collectors (FOW0049), ADBA (FOW0042)

103 Department of Energy and Climate Change and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Anaerobic Digestion Strategy and Action Plan, June 2011

104 Bio Collectors (FOW0049)

105 Bio Collectors (FOW0049)

108 Local Government Association, Meeting EU recycling targets, May 2015, para 3.3 ]

110 Local Government Association (FOW0032)

116 Q306 [Andrew Bird]

117 Hampshire County Council (FOW0007)

118 Environmental Services Association (FOW0025), para 10

119 Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority (FOW0039)

123 ADBA (FOW0042)

124 Viridor (FOW0052)

126 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (FOW0023)

127 ADBA (FOW0042)

128 Defra (FOW0085)

26 April 2017