Is there an appetite for a ban on organic waste to landfill?

Neil Grundon
Neil Grundon

Following the French Government’s decision to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management, discusses why the UK should follow our European neighbours in banning organic waste to landfill. He explains more about the changes he thinks would make a difference here in the UK.

Put simply, it is far too cheap for supermarkets, food wholesalers, restaurants and the wider hospitality sector to dispose of food waste into landfill. There is neither the incentive nor the infrastructure currently available to encourage them to do anything different.

 

Left to me, I would follow in the footsteps of our European counterparts and ban landfill completely for all wastes that can be recovered or recycled. Realistically, this might need to be a phased ban in order to give the industry time to look at how best to treat individual waste fractions, but it’s the only way to deliver change.

 

Using the landfill tax as a (less than) blunt instrument has not really achieved results. The slow pace of increments has discouraged large scale investments in the waste management industry, which has continued in the frame of “business as usual”, albeit paying a few more pounds a tonne in the same way that a few pennies on beer in the budget generally go unnoticed.

 

Of course, when the Government did finally ratchet up the tax to meet EU waste diversion targets, the burden lay largely on the shoulders of local authorities, which had the net effect of creating arguments about how best to treat the “entire” waste stream.

 

Politicians duly pitted AD against Energy from Waste (EfW), Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) against source separated, while those of us working within the waste industry were virtually excluded from the discussion.

 

What I would like to see is a situation where, with a landfill ban in place, EfW facilities become the most expensive form of treatment, followed by AD and then recycling. Making recycling the most cost effective (not to mention sustainable) option is the next best thing to helping customers avoid waste production in the first place.

 

This is something we are totally committed to – we always say that if a manufacturing production line had the same amount of wastage as say a restaurant, then there would be something seriously wrong and heads would roll.

 

Yet, day in day out, the hospitality sector manages to get away with disposing of vast amounts of food waste. Every plate, every bin should be an indicator of what the restaurant and the kitchen team are doing rightly or wrongly.

How many of us regularly send back uneaten food because there was just “too much” – shouldn’t that tell the chef that the portions are too large? Did we really need all those chips and does the ubiquitous lettuce leaf on the plate really achieve anything?

 

Since we introduced our food waste weighing and exchange bin system, which tracks the exact quantities of food waste individual restaurants are disposing of, we’re slowly seeing the penny beginning to drop – but there’s a long way to go yet.

 

Part of the reason is because large restaurant chains often employ brokers to manage their waste disposal and for them, unit price is king, forcing the waste industry into a bidding war where money pounds literally outweigh weight pounds.

 

With such a system in place, there’s little incentive for the hospitality sector to go back to basics and cut waste at source, something that we are always trying to encourage.

 

I think there is huge potential to grow the AD sector, indeed Grundon has its own joint venture AD plant with Agrivert, and I would like to see the industry lobby harder to encourage more change and measures to increase AD disposal.

Unfortunately, the mood for change as a whole seems slow.

 

Many traditional waste management companies are still keen to attract organic waste into landfill to maintain their methane production revenue stream.

 

At the same time, the lack of EfW facilities in the UK means we still have the ridiculous scenario where millions of tonnes of waste is exported to EfW facilities in mainland Europe to deliver the renewable energy which could instead be powering our homes and businesses.

 

And, even more frustratingly, before it even starts its journey overseas, that waste has to be pre-treated, processed through MRFs to separate out the organic material which is then mixed with other matter ahead of diversion to landfill.

 

That in turn delivers more problems, which the government has taken steps to address with its Loss of Ignition Testing, but surely this is prescribing treatment for the problem, rather than finding a long term cure.

 

The opportunities for our industry are huge but to be able to invest in new technologies to deliver change, we need political will, joined-up thinking and, above all, a realisation that the market needs to operate on sensible margins rather than continually drive itself down the cheapest route. That really is a one-way street.

 

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