Found to be the worst-performing European country in terms of food waste in a 2015 study, the United Kingdom (UK) certainly seems to be setting a new course. Over the past year, numerous initiatives have been launched in the fight against food waste, including a TV show, zero-waste restaurants and ales, a one-of-a-kind Mr Potato Head and even a town for testing waste-reducing ideas. And just in the past week, a campaign to boost local food waste-to-energy was launched, a five-point action plan for reducing household and commercial food waste was released, and a grocer expanded its redistribution trials for frozen and perishable food.
While respectively 56 and 86 percent of communities in Scotland and Wales have separate food collection, England’s collection rate sits at just 31 percent. A new report from food waste recycling company Bio Collectors notes that only 18 of London’s 33 boroughs (just under 55 percent) are collecting food waste separately. What’s more, only half of the capital’s food waste is being treated in the city, while its anaerobic digestion (AD) plants are currently operating at just 50 percent capacity. Sending London’s food waste to areas such as Warwickshire to be treated is creating an extra 206 kilograms in carbon emissions per journey, according to the report.
In response, Bio Collectors launched a campaign urging London councils to turn to local AD plants. With only four biomethane and combined heat and power (CHP) plants located within the capital, the report asserts that more should be done by authorities and businesses to ensure that they are running at full capacity before waste is transported out. Bio Collectors suggested that this discrepancy is creating a £50 million burden for waste authorities, while also generating around 2.1 million in extra carbon emissions.
“Following our research into London’s food waste, our Just AD Food campaign aims to encourage London businesses to recycle more of their food waste. Our ambition is to put pressure on local authorities and decision makers who are still sending food waste to incineration plants or landfill, when it could be recycled responsibly, reducing the negative impact on the environment,” said Bio Collectors’ managing director Paul Killoughery.
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“The focus of shopping locally and eating locally sourced food should extend to how we deal with our food waste. This would then feed into the circular economy of food that travels from farm to fork, then back to farm.”
The idea has already worked elsewhere: In 2014, UK grocer Sainsbury’s partnered with waste management company Biffa to allow its Cannock superstore to run on power generated from the store’s own food waste, processed at Biffa’s AD facility in Cannock.
Bio Collectors further suggests that authorities should turn to the circular economy to alleviate pressures and ensure that all of the UK’s 107 AD plants are running at full capacity, in turn generating more renewable energy.
Bio Collectors currently processes around 11 percent of London’s 890,000 tonnes of consumer food waste.
Meanwhile, WRAP released a Food Waste Recycling Action Plan aimed at improving household and commercial food waste collection and recycling by promoting greater collaboration across supply chains. The plan is presented under five distinct themes: Developing the business case for recycling food waste; Optimizing collections; Communicating with households and producers on ways to reduce waste; Ensuring quality and quantity; and Making contracts work. Actions are grouped under these themes, and lead bodies were assigned to coordinate each action’s delivery.
Members of the new action plan hope that increasing recycling volumes will bring in economic benefits alongside rejuvenating England’s plateauing recycling rates.
“Preventing food waste sits at the heart of what WRAP does, but after we’ve done all we can to prevent and redistribute it, the focus has to shift to recycling. There are significant volumes of food waste still ending up in the residual waste stream. This is a massive loss of resources,” said Marcus Gover, WRAP’s recently-appointed chief executive and former operations director.
“The action plan recognises the shared interests and common benefits to collecting and recycling more of the food waste we can’t prevent and avoid. This can only be realised by the sector working together. The plan provides the road map for industry to do just that and I urge everyone to take a look at it and see what they can do.”
Earlier this year, WRAP released an in-depth examination of the UK’s grocery supply chain and found that 40 percent of the 10 million tonnes of ‘post-farm gate’ food waste is unavoidable. At the same time, only 1.8 million tonnes of that waste is currently recycled. WRAP is in favor of maximizing available anaerobic digestion and composting capacity to produce energy and fertilizers.
WRAP’s new action plan supports local authorities already active in food waste recycling and those thinking about adding a collection by helping them cost-effectively maximize their food waste collections. It is also intended to help operators of food waste treatment plants play their part in securing long-term supplies of food waste, at a quality that meets their operational requirements.
On the retailer side of things, Marks and Spencer (M&S) is expanding its redistribution scheme to include frozen food. After trials in three Central London stores, M&S has received the official green light from government agency DEFRA and the Westminster City Council that they are satisfied with the food safety measures in place.
The grocer has been working with redistribution platform Neighbourly to donate unsold food from all of its owned stores to over 500 charities such as food banks, churches, community centers, community cafés, and hospices. So far, they have been able to redistribute grocery items such as pasta, cereal and cooking sauces, in addition to fresh items including fruit, vegetables and bakery items. For the next phase, M&S will be expanding the program to include chilled items.
Chilled items have different food safety requirements and have ‘use by’ dates which can prevent supermarkets from redistributing them if the date has passed. Adding to the challenge, most charities do not have the capacity to collect such items after stores close and redistribute it before midnight (when the date would ‘pass’).
M&S took on the challenge of freezing the items in store between closing time and midnight in a way that is safe and legally compliant, so that the items can be fit for redistribution. The process involves cooling food down to -2 degrees Celsius to extend the life of the food, and re-labelling the items with new best before dates of a month from freezing. The items are kept in a designated, segregated area of the freezer. The grocer has now successfully received approval from the necessary regulatory bodies that the process is safe, and has redistributed frozen food to London-based charity City Harvest.
“By proving the concept that chilled foods can be safely frozen for redistribution, M&S can now work towards expanding the variety and amount of food they can redistribute, not only reducing food waste but also saving charities money,” WRAP’s Director Dr. Richard Swannell commented on the initiative.
Next, M&S plans to assess the viability, scale and opportunity of rolling out the initiative further, including evaluating which of their stores have the necessary freezer capacity and finding redistribution partners that have the infrastructure to move and store frozen food.