January 27, 2022

Food waste recycling and the possible impact of COP26

In this timely article, Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood, discusses whether the COP26 summit in Glasgow could prove a positive catalyst for change when it comes to food waste recycling.

According to recent statistics,* the average family in the UK throws away more than £730 of perfectly edible food waste every year. Giving that sobering statistic a global perspective, approximately 40% of all food produced is either lost or wasted, with more than 10m tonnes per annum landfilled right here in the UK.

The impact of this wasteful behaviour is two-fold. Firstly, the obvious financial implications to householders. Indeed, a recent report from WRAP calculates that the average family throws away more than 700kg of food every year. Secondly, the environmental impact of sending food waste to landfill is concerning, with every tonne thrown away creating greenhouse gases 21 times more environmentally-damaging than CO2.

More importantly still, it’s a travesty that food is wasted when food poverty continues to prove a growing issue nationwide. It simply doesn’t make sense to be throwing away food needlessly at one end of society, while seeing an incremental rise in demand for food banks and community fridges in most cities at the other.

So, what can householders do to reduce their food waste figures? Well, from meal planning and better portion control, to freezing, repurposing leftovers and redistributing surplus via community fridges, the list is almost endless. If we all made a few small changes, the resulting impact would be astonishing. Granted, national statistics show that food waste has fallen by 7% in the past three years, but there’s still a lot more we can all do.

The hidden cost of food waste

However, while minimising avoidable food waste is critical, what’s often forgotten is the unavoidable fraction – the bones, shells, gristle and spoiled produce which is almost impossible to eradicate.

Responsible for 20% of the UK’s food waste mountain, it’s imperative that we keep unavoidable food waste away from landfill. One simple way to do this is via food waste recycling. While COP26 in Glasgow is focusing on global carbon reduction, food waste is also on the agenda. It’s hugely positive to see the city of Glasgow’s restaurateurs and caterers getting behind the summit and actively embracing food waste recycling schemes.

So far, key venues in the city (including The Gannet, Paseano Pizza, The Finnieston and The Gate) have all adopted food waste recycling processes. This is encouraging and we need to see this more enlightened approach gain more traction after the summit.

Harnessing the anaerobic digestion (AD) process, food waste recycling captures methane gas released during the natural degradation of organic matter. This gas can either be combusted to generate renewable electricity or upgraded and injected directly into the national gas grid.

Nothing goes to waste during the process, with even the resulting digestate repurposed as a sustainable bio-fertiliser.

So, why is so much food waste still simply landfilled? Well, due to the perceived high costs of food waste recycling collections, most local authorities fail to provide kerbside collections to residents. Households therefore have no choice than to simply bin their waste – a real travesty.

While details outlined within the government’s Environment Bill suggested that legislation was being considered to tackle the issue, implementation is seeming less and less likely. Numerous delays, objections and the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have seemingly forced this item to the bottom of the priority list.

Action on food waste

The UK can’t continue to throw away household food waste. Landfill sites are bursting at the seams and the environment is suffering. At ReFood, we’ve been lobbying for a complete ban on food waste to landfill for more than a decade and will continue to do so until those in power implement a new system.

Throwing away more than £700 per household, per year, may seem like an awful waste of money, but it’s simply the tip of the iceberg. The future is in our hands, if we choose to change.

I hope the focus on this issue provided by COP26 and the positive initiative taken by the city of Glasgow will act as a catalyst – kick-starting households, businesses and (more importantly) the government to take positive action to tackle food waste once and for all.