One of the more arresting facts of modern life is that one third of the food produced in the UK never gets eaten. In other words, for every dinner for two, a dinner for one goes straight into the bin – and from there, all too often into a hole in the ground.
It’s estimated that post farm-gate, food and drink waste amounts to around 10 million tonnes per year, 60 per cent of which could have been avoided.
It is waste on an eye-watering, industrial scale, and is neither good for the environment nor for the economy, generating around 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which escape from landfill, and costing more than £17bn a year.
Thankfully, it is a problem that is being tackled. Ever more food waste is now diverted from landfill and recycled, to produce gas, heat and fertiliser.
In Yorkshire, ReFood’s anaerobic digestion (AD) plant at Doncaster now processes 160,000 tonnes of food waste a year, which it turns into power and fertiliser.
“We collect from businesses within a 50-mile radius, everything from single wheelie-bins to bulk-loaders,” says commercial manager Richard Poskitt.
“We were the first to swap bins with clean, sanitised replacements, so that’s been a real USP for us.”
Customers include the NHS, Lidl, Iceland and Doncaster Racecourse, as well as retailers, food outlets, educational establishments, manufacturers, hotels, hospitals and prisons.
That food mountain is first heated, then pasteurised, cooled, mixed and fed 3,500 tonnes at a time into digester tanks, where in oxygen-free conditions bacteria break it down for four or five weeks, producing methane gas.
This is cleaned and burned to produce enough electricity for the National Grid to power 10,000 homes a year.
Once all the material is fully digested, the liquid left, which represents about 92 per cent of the original volume of waste, is turned into ReGrow, a bio-fertiliser which directly displaces the use of fossil fuel-based fertiliser and has achieved the PAS110 quality protocol accreditation.
In fact, it is so highly regarded that the Doncaster plant has long-term contracts with South Yorkshire farmers who are willing to buy as much of it as they can lay their hands on.
It’s a solution that makes sense on several levels – AD has also already reduced UK greenhouse gas emissions by nearly one per cent annually – and it has gained ground in recent years. According to waste reduction charity Wrap, 11 million households now have access to a food waste collection service, and ReFood’s Doncaster plant, which employs around 50 people, has doubled capacity since it opened in 2011.
And yet progress in rolling out the technology appears to be slowing down. Although the number of new plants commissioned grew between 2012 and 2016 – there are now 540 in the UK – the rate is forecast to decrease, largely owing to uncertainty regarding funding and Government policy.
To push for change, ReFood has partnered with a battery of public and private-sector organisations, including Waitrose and Newcastle University, to create Vision 2020. Its goal is zero food waste going to landfill, which it says could generate enough electricity to power 600,000 homes.
To achieve that, it advocates a range of measures, including a total ban on food waste going to landfill and tax breaks for companies that recycle.
Encouragingly, most of the UK is already well on the way to fulfilling the “mission” – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all require food waste to be collected separately for anaerobic digestion rather than landfill. Only England lags behind.
“One of the frustrating things is that Government policy changes,” says Mr Poskitt. “Everyone is pushing for Vision 2020 to happen, but the latest feedback from Defra is that they currently have no intention of making food recycling compulsory, as it is in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
“The AD market is stalling in terms of investment in plant and infrastructure. There really needs to be a landfill ban.”
The hope is that, failing a recommitment to AD by the May administration, overwhelming demand will eventually nudge the Government into action, but there is still work to be done to change public attitudes.
“There’s a big cultural shift going on in terms of food waste – for example with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War on Waste campaign – and the public are a lot more aware of the problem than they used to be,” says Mr Poskitt.
“But there’s still some way to go. A lot of people in the industry don’t realise how easy it is to separate food waste and send it to us. Also, a lot of places in the leisure industry have quite a high rate of staff turnover, so training can be an issue.”
Ultimately, Mr Poskitt and his Vision 2020 co-campaigners are hoping that consumers who aren’t swayed by the environmental argument will be convinced by the equally compelling economic one. According to Wrap, the average household bins around £700 worth of food a year, and Mr Poskitt says that waste can be every bit as costly for businesses too.
“Landfill fees and landfill tax mean that food waste costs £100-plus per tonne. It can mean the difference between profit and loss,” he adds.
“So the question about recycling is: why wouldn’t you? It’s greener, safer and cheaper. It’s better for the environment, but it’s also better for the bottom line.”