Q&A: Answering your questions on DEFRA's upcoming plans for businesses to segregate food waste

Over the next few months, DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) will be unveiling plans which will make it mandatory for businesses to separate out food waste from other types of waste.

The announcement is part of a bigger strategy to overhaul waste and recycling legislation for all commercial and domestic waste, with the aim of simplifying waste collection systems nationwide to increase the overall recycling rate for the UK to 65%.

Other areas under the spotlight will include a deposit return scheme and new rules on recycling plastics, but it is the new food waste regulations which are set to make the biggest difference because of the sheer number of organisations that will have to make changes.

To help businesses get ahead of the curve, Owen George, Divisional Commercial & Resource Strategy Manager, provides answers to the questions that need to be asked.

Will the upcoming food waste legislation affect my business?

Yes, undoubtedly it will. Most households now have dedicated kitchen caddies for their food waste and DEFRA wants all businesses to segregate food waste in the same way.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found evidence that most businesses produce 5kg of food waste per week, so almost without exception it will affect every business.

Can you give me some examples?

  • Basically, whatever type of business you are in, if you have employees who generate at least 5kg of food waste a week, then the new legislation will apply to you:
    • Even small items will contribute to that 5kg – think used teabags, coffee grounds, stale biscuits, unwanted sandwiches, banana skins, orange peel etc
  • Public institutions:
    • Hospitals
    • Prisons
    • Schools
  • Obviously the wider hospitality sector will be majorly impacted too:
    • Pubs, clubs, cafés, restaurants and takeaways
    • Hotels
    • Conference centres/exhibition and event venues
    • Sports and entertainment complexes
  • Any other business or premises where food is manufactured, produced or provided

Why is DEFRA introducing this?

In 2018, the Government launched its Waste and Resource Strategy as part of the Environment Bill. During the first stage of the consultation process, there was widespread support from both individuals (94%) and stakeholder respondents (90%) for the segregation and recycling of food waste.

The food and drink waste hierarchy will always prioritise preventing surplus and waste in the first place and then redistributing surplus food (for example to food banks/charities etc), but it also recognises that where this can’t be done, recycling and recovery should be the preferred measures.

Why shouldn’t food waste go to landfill, surely it biodegrades?

The problem is that as food waste biodegrades, it releases harmful greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) and that contributes to climate change.

How is food waste treated?

There are a number of treatment technologies. When we collect food waste, we send it for reprocessing at anaerobic digestion facilities where it generates renewable electricity and produces bio-fertiliser for use in agriculture.

Does this mean food waste can no longer be sent to landfill or disposal via the sewer?

Correct. Sending it to landfill or into the sewer system (even if has been treated on site) should only be the absolute last resort. This also applies to any kitchens using a macerator – washing food waste down the drain will not be an acceptable disposal option in the future, it will still need to be separately collected and treated at an authorised site.

What is the timetable?

The current proposals are now going through the second round of consultation and the finer details of the legislation are expected to be announced in Q2 this year. It is likely the new rules will be introduced in 2023/24.

What we’re suggesting is that businesses start to think seriously now about the changes they need to make in order to that they become compliant before legislation forces them to do so.

Won’t it be more expensive?

Not necessarily. Food waste is usually quite heavy, so if a business is disposing of unwanted food in its general waste bins, it is probably costing them more than they should be paying anyway and they may also incur heavy penalties in Landfill Tax charges.

Many of our customers see their general waste collection bills drop once they take food waste out.

There are also other benefits, as they can reduce the number of waste collections required, it takes them a step closer to becoming zero waste to landfill and helps meet their environmental targets.

But presumably you have to pay for a separate food waste collection?

Yes, but segregated food waste is up to five times cheaper to dispose of per kilo, than general waste. So the higher your volume of food waste, the more you can save.

Flexibility is also really important here. Our food waste collection service is very much tailored to the amount of food waste a customer generates. A smaller business may only need a collection once a fortnight, whereas a larger scale business may benefit from having a food waste compactor on site to keep the number of collections down.

How do I encourage my employees to make the change?

Many employees will already be used to segregating food waste at home into separate kitchen caddies and we generally find they welcome the opportunity to do the same at work.

It’s a question of making the system as easy as possible and encouraging them to see the environmental benefits too. We can help and often hold food waste awareness events for our customers.

We find introducing a new service such as food waste segregation is also a wider opportunity to review all waste streams, such as cardboard and plastics. Good segregation is the best way to increase recycling overall and that’s better for businesses and better for the planet.

How much extra space will I need for more bins?

It all depends on the amount of waste being generated – we have a wide range of bins and containers, from smaller food caddies and pedal bins to larger 120 litre food waste bins.

In addition, we’re actively working closely with new equipment innovators who are producing technologies which can either produce electricity for your premises or significantly reduce the weight of the food waste, helping to further improve cost savings.

Besides disposal of food waste, does the legislation go further?

The emphasis is on encouraging businesses to put prevention and redistribution measures at the top of the food waste chain. There are separate consultations taking place about introducing mandatory reporting of food surplus and waste data and although we don’t know the details yet, businesses will need to be more transparent about how much food waste they are producing and where it is going.

Again, this is something we can help with as we can provide the necessary data via our waste collection service.

What will happen if I don’t take action?

Details of penalties haven’t been announced yet, but the likelihood is that businesses could be fined if they consistently refuse to follow the legislation.