Counting the Cost of Food Waste: EU Food Waste Prevention - European Union Committee Contents

CHAPTER 5: Respecting the 'Waste Hierarchy'

142.  The EU's Waste Framework Directive sets out a 'waste hierarchy' (see Figure 4), from prevention through to disposal via minimisation, reuse, recycling and recovery.[242] In this chapter, we consider how practical application of the waste hierarchy to the food supply chain may have implications for food waste prevention throughout the chain.


The 'waste hierarchy'

Source: Directive 2008/98

143.  As applied to food, it has been argued that the waste hierarchy translates into a 'food use hierarchy' (see Figure 5) from prevention to landfill via redistribution to humans, feeding to animals and energy or nutrient recovery by methods such as AD and in-vessel composting (IVC) (see Box 8).[243] In the Netherlands the food utilisation hierarchy is referred to as the 'Ladder van Moerman', where each successive step down the hierarchy from waste prevention down towards treatment and disposal represents a loss in food value and a less desirable option.[244]


The 'food use hierarchy'

Source: WRAP supplementary


Anaerobic digestion and in-vessel composting

Anaerobic digestion

AD is a natural process whereby plant and animal materials (biomass) are broken down by micro-organisms in the absence of air. Many forms of biomass are suitable for AD, including food waste, slurry and manure, as well as crops and crop residues.

The process is carried out in three steps. First, biomass is put inside a sealed tank or digester. Second, naturally occurring micro-organisms then digest the biomass, releasing a methane-rich gas (biogas). This gas can be used to generate renewable heat and power. Finally, the remaining material (digestate) is rich in nutrients and can be used as a fertiliser.[245]

In-vessel composting

IVCs can be used to treat food and garden waste mixtures. These systems ensure that composting takes place in an enclosed environment, with accurate temperature control and monitoring.

The feedstock is shredded to a uniform size and loaded in the first 'barrier'. Naturally occurring micro-organisms break down the material, releasing nutrients and increasing the temperature to the 60-70°C necessary to kill pathogens. After the first stage (which can take between seven days and three weeks), the material transfers to the second 'barrier' and continues to compost, usually for a similar duration.

During both stages the oxygen level, moisture and temperature are carefully monitored and controlled to ensure full sanitisation of the material. After being sanitised, the compost is left to mature in an open windrow[246] or enclosed area for approximately 10-14 weeks to ensure stabilisation.[247]

144.  The inquiry detected no disagreement with the principle of such a food use hierarchy. Defra emphasised the economic benefits of waste prevention rather than allowing waste to occur and to pass down the hierarchy.[248] Other witnesses, including the waste management industry, were clear that they saw prevention, followed by redistribution, as appropriate.[249] Indeed, waste prevention can be a requirement of waste management contracts according to SITA UK and Veolia.[250] The Environmental Services Association (ESA), representing the waste management industry, has agreed a Responsibility Deal with the UK Government, which includes a commitment to promote the waste hierarchy.[251]

145.  We share the view of our witnesses that the waste hierarchy as applied to food is most effectively represented as a food use hierarchy, focused on prevention and redistribution to humans and animals, wherever possible. As this interpretation has not been formally recognised, we recommend that the European Commission publishes guidance on the application of the waste hierarchy to food.

146.  We heard concerns, however, that economic drivers tend to distort the hierarchy, with a result that there are incentives directed towards lower stages of the hierarchy, including both AD and IVC, rather than redistribution.[252] According to FareShare: "at the moment, we have a waste hierarchy that is completely out of kilter with the economic hierarchy that sits alongside it".[253] Waitrose acknowledged that there is a clear temptation, on economic grounds, to prioritise energy recovery over redistribution, although Waitrose itself is supportive of redistribution, as it prefers to have "food used as food".[254]

147.  Turning first to the economics of food redistribution for charitable purposes, we heard that fiscal tools are available to promote such redistribution, which could help to align economic incentives more effectively with the food use hierarchy. One financial tool available to Member States is the possibility to exempt food donated for charitable purposes from value added tax (VAT) under Articles 16 and 74 of the VAT Directive[255].[256] The European Commission has adopted guidance which clearly supports that interpretation.[257] According to the FDF, 13 Member States currently take advantage of this derogation, including the UK.[258] We detected frustration that the measure has not, though, been adopted more widely. Tesco expressed relief that Poland had recently introduced the option, which would assist Tesco's redistribution efforts there.[259] The FDF, representing food manufacturers (which is a sector with a high level of surplus food),[260] wanted to see this approach "extended across all Member States" so as to achieve a harmonised approach across the EU to interpretation of the VAT Directive.[261]

148.  Another fiscal option already operated in some countries is to offer tax deductions for redistribution schemes. In the US, which has extensive networks for food redistribution on a far larger scale than European operations,[262] Section 170(e)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code allows certain businesses to earn a tax deduction for donating food and can claim tax breaks on shipments of food if donated food is transported using spare capacity in delivery vehicles.[263] Feeding the 5,000 noted that government incentives for diverting surplus food for human consumption are rare in EU countries, although France is reportedly moving towards tax breaks for businesses that donate their food for charitable redistribution.[264] The idea of exercising such fiscal options was described by FareShare as potentially "transformational" if it succeeded in creating an economic incentive for private operators to redistribute food, beyond the current moral incentive.[265]

149.  Partnerships through the supply chain may also be able to ensure that food is redistributed efficiently. One possible model has been developed by the Spanish agri-food cooperatives and Spanish Federation of Food Banks to distribute fruit and vegetables among the neediest people.[266] Such cooperation has the added value of reducing the reliance of food aid organisations on packaged and tinned products, rather than fresh products.[267]

150.  We conclude that there are fiscal tools available to support the redistribution of surplus edible food, ranging from value added tax (VAT) exemptions to tax deductions and tax breaks. We recommend that the European Commission communicates its agreed guidance on application of the VAT Directive, ensuring that it is publicised and is easily accessible on its website.

151.  Furthermore, we recommend that the European Commission undertakes an assessment of fiscal measures that might be adopted to encourage food redistribution, with a view to possible adoption by Member States. In the meantime, we recommend that the UK Government undertake their own assessment of how they might further promote the redistribution of food to humans by way of fiscal measures. Particular attention should be given to encouraging the redistribution of fresh, nutritious food.

152.  Moving down the hierarchy, the next stage is the use of food not fit for human consumption for livestock feed. As highlighted in the previous chapter, this is only permitted where food has not been in contact with animal by-products (see Chapter 4, paragraph 122). It would therefore include food such as fruit, vegetables, biscuits, bread and pasta, provided that these have been fully segregated and have not come into contact with animal by-products. One impact of the constraints around feeding surplus food to animals is that substitute feed must be provided for livestock from primary sources. In large part, this has been in the form of soymeal, which has been met partly by the deforestation of South American rainforest in order to provide sufficient land to grow the soy to meet demand. WWF UK told us that the EU is now the largest importer of soy for animal feed from South America, amounting to around 40 million tonnes.[268]

153.  Feeding the 5,000 was clear that feeding food that cannot be redistributed back to animals is also more energy efficient than transforming it into energy.[269] WWF UK agreed, noting that food is very resource-intensive and requires energy as an input at the beginning of the process: "if we are going to make this food, we ought to eat it as people, and then it should go to the livestock", rather than being transformed back into energy.[270]

154.  The UK Government stated: "Defra and the Animal Health and Veterinary Services Agency encourage the use of biscuits, bread, etc. in animal feed, provided it is safely sourced and adequately separated, and have worked with industry on schemes to improve the volume of retail waste able to be used in feeding."[271] They reported that, within the context of the Hospitality and Food Service Agreement, a working group is considering the production of guidance on the feeding of catering waste to animals so that it is very clear what is allowed and what is not allowed.[272]

155.  We welcome work underway in the UK to clarify what food waste from the retail and catering sectors is permitted to be fed to animals. We emphasise the urgency of the work and consider that publication of such work would also be helpful at the European level.

156.  We examined recovery as the next stage of the hierarchy. The AD sector has been widely supported by subsidy.[273] In the UK, this has taken the form of Renewable Obligation Certificates and feed-in tariffs.[274] While the UK has only the sixth largest number of AD plants among European countries,[275] the UK is unusual in treating a lot of food waste through AD.[276] Efforts to boost AD in the UK are underpinned by the Government's AD strategy.[277] It was generally agreed that energy and nutrient recovery from unavoidable food waste will remain essential as options for unavoidable food waste.[278] ADBA suggested that more action could be undertaken across the EU to promote the use of AD.[279] Ultimately, though, as Sustain commented: "The most desirable things need to have the right economic penalties and incentives so that they are more attractive than the ones at the bottom [of the hierarchy]."[280]

157.  We recommend that the European Commission assess policy and financial intervention throughout the food use hierarchy, publishing guidance for Member States on how such intervention can most effectively align with the hierarchy. Such guidance would helpfully include best practice at each stage of the hierarchy.

158.  The final element of the waste hierarchy is disposal. As indicated above, the availability of the separate collection of food waste from mixed waste is an important part of diverting food waste from disposal. There was general agreement that sufficient incentives are in place to discourage the disposal of waste through landfill, at least in principle. In the UK the Landfill Tax has been put in place to reduce landfill disposal and was increased to £80 per tonne on 1 April 2014, remaining at least at this level until 2020.[281] Until its end in 2013, the Landfill Allowance and Trading Scheme set a limit on the amount of biodegradable waste that local authorities could place in landfill. Witnesses were agreed that the measures were responsible for a reduction in the amount of waste sent to landfill.[282] Other solutions included a ban on landfill, which has been used in other EU countries and will be introduced in Scotland from 2015.[283]

159.  WRAP emphasised that "there is still far too much stuff going to landfill so the evidence is that [the drivers are] not entirely right".[284] A waste analysis in Shropshire in 2013 showed that food waste was the major component of waste sent for disposal, forming 34.3% of the total and in one area was as high as 48%.[285] To ensure that food waste is available for recovery, rather than being sent for disposal in landfill, an increase in the separate collection of waste food was considered necessary.[286] In March 2013, 26% of Councils in England collected food waste separately, compared to 95% in Wales, 34% in Scotland and 4% in Northern Ireland.[287] On 1 January 2014, the separate collection of commercial food waste became obligatory in Scotland for large urban businesses, to be extended to smaller urban businesses in 2016.[288] To overcome some of the observed variation among Councils and Devolved Administrations, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee recommended that local authorities be offered further guidance to enable them to put in place waste collection facilities which maximise the value that can be extracted from waste.[289]

160.  The Catering Equipment Suppliers' Association (CESA) expressed concern about the focus in Scotland on the separate collection of waste to be sent to AD, accompanied by offers of public subsidy. It argued that alternative technologies exist within kitchens for the treatment of waste.[290] Such available technologies include food waste disposers and digesters, which use sewers to transport waste for processing as sewage sludge through AD at waste water treatment works. This type of disposal, known as 'sink to sewer', has been banned in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. It has also been identified by WRAP as a factor that may hinder the monitoring of food waste, particularly within service sector catering[291] and Water UK has also raised environmental concerns over their potential impact on waste water systems.[292]

161.  Even if economic incentives are aligned with the food use hierarchy, energy and nutrient recovery will remain essential components of food waste management, as preferred options to disposal. Economic incentives to discourage landfill have been effective, but efforts must continue to reduce further the amount of landfill.

162.  As significant quantities of food waste are currently sent to landfill in the UK, we conclude that the provision of separate food waste collections remains, where feasible, an important aspect of moving food waste off the bottom rung of the hierarchy. We therefore note with interest the example of the Scottish Government in making separate collections obligatory for urban businesses. We recommend that the UK Government develop a best practice model for such separate collection, at both household and commercial level, for Councils throughout England. In turn, we recommend that the European Commission ensure that experiences with such collections are shared across the EU, including their impact on landfill volumes.

242   Directive 2008/98 Back

243   Q 48, Feeding the 5,000, WRAP, "Every Crumb Counts" Joint Food Wastage Declaration Back

244   Companies, Damn Food Waste Back

245   What is AD?, The Official Information Portal on Anaerobic Digestion Back

246   A windrow is a long line of raked hay, corn sheaves, or peats laid out to dry in the wind. Back

247   In-vessel composting (IVC), WRAP Back

248   Defra Back

249   Q 232, QQ 235-236, Q 238, ESA supplementary Back

250   Q 235 Back

251   IbidBack

252   Q 66, Q 72, Feeding the 5,000 Back

253   Q 66 Back

254   Q 232  Back

255   Directive 2006/112 Back

256   Q 36, FDF, "Every Crumb Counts" Joint Food Wastage Declaration Back

257   Q 13. Guidelines resulting from the 97th meeting of the VAT Committee of 7 September 2012, Document C-taxud.c.1(2012)1701663-745 Back

258   Q 36 Back

259   Q 221  Back

260   WRAP Back

261   Q 36 Back

262   About us, Feeding America Back

263   Feeding the 5,000, "Every Crumb Counts" Joint Food Wastage Declaration Back

264   Feeding the 5,000 Back

265   Q 69 Back

266   NFU Back

267   Q 69 Back

268   Q 47  Back

269   Q 48 Back

270   Q 48 Back

271   Defra Back

272   Q 13  Back

273   Q 72, Q 203, Q 245, Feeding the 5,000 Back

274   Q 245 Back

275   IbidBack

276   Q 203 Back

277   Defra Back

278   Q 235, Q 247, Q 251, Defra Back

279   Q 250 Back

280   Q 72 Back

281   Q 7, Defra Back

282   Q 7, Q 72, Q 200, Q 236, Feeding the 5,000, Unilever  Back

283   Q 236, Q 255 Back

284   Q 203 Back

285   Shropshire Council Back

286   Q 239, Q 245, ESA supplementary, Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority Back

287   Q 255, ADBA supplementary, WRAP  Back

288   Zero Waste Regulations, Scotland Back

289   Science and Technology Committee, Waste or resource? Stimulating a bioeconomy (3rd Report, Session 2013-14, HL Paper 141) Back

290   CESA Back

291   Overview of Waste in the UK Hospitality and Food Service Sector, WRAP, November 2013 Back

292   Macerators - the impact on sewers, Water UK Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2014