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England’s food waste policy – what is it?

18th February 2013 Posted by

Following a House of Lords debate on 12 February, Defra announced that the Government in England would introduce a ban on food waste into landfill only if the measure was “affordable” to businesses. Meanwhile, Scotland has introduced a landfill ban on food waste through the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012. Wales, while not formally instituting a landfill ban, are nevertheless well on the way to implementing anaerobic digestion, their favoured treatment option for food waste.

Defra’s reticence might well be a response to a recent study on the feasibility of landfill bans¹ prepared for its Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). The study estimated that landfill restrictions or bans on food waste coupled with anaerobic digestion or composting resulted in a net cost to society. In other words, the cost of implementation outweighed the monetary value of their environmental benefit. At best, a landfill restriction (a light-touch ban) on food waste coupled with composting or with anaerobic digestion and injection of biogas into the grid, indicated the “possibility” of a small net benefit to society.

In the light of the study’s cost-benefit analysis, should Defra rethink its hitherto favoured strategy for food waste: diversion from landfill into anaerobic digestion and composting? What about Defra’s concerns regarding affordability to businesses?

The study’s conclusion does not mean that a landfill ban is unaffordable, because the financial cost to businesses should be compared to the cost of unsorted collection of food waste followed by landfilling. Indeed, if Defra believes a landfill ban is unaffordable the implication is that anaerobic digestion is also unaffordable, because landfill costs less and is therefore financially preferable. This makes a nonsense of Defra’s landfill policy, which is to tax landfill out of reach, relative to the cost of other treatment options. Logically, Defra should then either raise the level of landfill tax further, or emulate the Welsh Government in making available funds to defray the cost to businesses of separate food waste collection and anaerobic digestion.

On a broader front, one response to the study’s cost-benefit assessment would be for Defra to devise additional strategic options that lower financial costs relative to environmental benefits (adding the two gives us the net benefit to society). As an example, scaling up anaerobic digestion by co-locating or merging food waste treatment into sewage treatment works or farm-based anaerobic digestion plants would help lower costs and also increase environmental benefits. Better integration of separate food waste collections into existing collection rounds would lower collection costs. The knock-on benefit of reducing contamination of dry recyclates by separately collecting food waste should also be factored into the cost-benefit calculation.

Defra’s Action Plan for anaerobic digestion² makes all the right noises, but there is a sense that Ministers are not all pulling in the same direction. Without Defra holding the ring between local authorities and the private sector (for separate collection), planning authorities (for optimum siting of plants), and the energy sector (for uptake of power and gas), the perception will linger that food waste policy in England is “muddled”.

¹  Landfill Bans: Feasibility Research. Project Code EVA130, WRAP, Banbury, December 2012.
²  Anaerobic Digestion Strategy and Action Plan. Defra, 2011

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