by Peter Jones7 minute read
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on Waste management in England has been big news in waste this month, and by virtue of being a bit of a mixed bag most commentators have been able to find in it something to praise. The Committee had the unenviable job of trying to sift conflicting evidence from numerous interested parties, and perhaps it was inevitable that some of their recommendations would be in tension.
The committee urges Defra to push recycling rates to ‘the maximum feasible level’, but advocates nothing stronger than exchanges of good practice across local authorities to achieve this. It states that incineration and high rates of recycling can happily co-exist, but emphasises the need to ensure only genuinely residual waste is incinerated. It hints at recycling targets, but suggests that local authorities be left to decide what is appropriate for their particular area; and whilst wanting to get more feedstock into AD, it doesn’t recommend that food waste collections should be mandatory.
Why would the committee stop short of this last recommendation, when it recognised the contribution that food waste collections are making to the increase in recycling in Wales? It appears that concerns about cost may have been a factor:
“we also received evidence against separate collections of food waste due to the high cost of implementation and low participation rates by householders leading to low volumes being collected… In practice, local authorities can struggle with the costs created by separate food collections, as demonstrated by Tamworth and Lichfield local councils which have recently stopped separate food waste collection services in order to save a total of £400,000 per year.”
Surprisingly, these concerns about council coffers didn’t come from local government, but from a written submission by incinerator-builders Babcock and Wilcox, whose evidence states that “separate collections of food waste should NOT be pursued.” They cite the key problems to be collection costs, poor take-up, public discontent with separate food waste bins and high contamination; and predictably enough view energy from waste (EfW) incineration as a preferable solution for food waste.
With disposal costs (whether landfill or incineration) tending to be around £100/tonne and anaerobic digestion gate fees around £35, one would have thought that the savings from moving any substantial amount of food from the former to the latter should pay for the collection costs with room to spare. Is Babcock right to say that isn’t how it works in practice?
The committee’s reference to Tamworth and Lichfield seems to be the product of its own research on LetsRecycle – these councils aren’t mentioned in Babcock’s or anyone else’s evidence. The two authorities manage their waste jointly, and it’s certainly true that they’ve decided to stop collecting food waste, and expect to make savings of over £400k a year.
However, this tells us nothing about the economics of separate food waste collection, as Tamworth and Lichfield offered a fortnightly mixed food and garden waste service. According to the relevant committee report and appendix, food waste only amounted to 5% of the almost 20,000 tonnes of organic waste being collected. That shouldn’t be surprising – the evidence indicates that yields of food waste from mixed food and garden services are considerably lower than when food is collected separately.
With so little food waste being collected, stopping it reduces collection costs by just one truck and crew. The big savings result because, with food no longer mixed in, the remaining garden waste can be sent to a windrow at less than £25 a tonne, rather than to in-vessel composting (IVC) which was costing over £45 a tonne, either in gate fees or in foregone recycling credits from the Waste Disposal Authority (WDA).
So, the two councils have decided, quite rationally, that it isn’t wise to mix garden and food waste if it means doubling the treatment costs for 95% of the material. But the EFRA committee has misunderstood if it thinks the councils were struggling “with the costs created by separate food collections”.
Interestingly, Babcock advised the EFRA Committee that, alongside incineration, a cost-effective way to collect and treat food waste is: “Mix with green waste then treat through in vessel composting or Anaerobic Digestion”. Tamworth and Lichfield might take a different view…
Babcock claims that Worcestershire offers the clearest supporting evidence for its views:
“it has been demonstrated that the cost is disproportionate to the volume of waste collected i.e very expensive. To this end, a District in Worcester (Wyre Forest) scrapped their food waste collection scheme as at the 1st January 2014.”
I can find no indication that Wyre Forest has ever operated a food waste scheme (they considered and rejected the idea in 2009). Maybe Babcock was thinking of neighbouring Wychavon, where food waste collections stopped on 10th January.
Wychavon expects to save £550k per year as a result, although the relevant committee report doesn’t break this figure down. The rationale for change was indeed that set-out rates had fallen to less than 20%; food contributed less than 2% to the district’s recycling rate; and consultation respondents voted overwhelmingly for this service to be cut as part of efforts to save £4m. Babcock’s point in a nutshell!
Or perhaps not. More information about Wychavon emerges through Worcester City Council’s decision in October 2013 not to pursue food waste collections. Worcester’s research document mentions that Wychavon introduced separate weekly food waste collections mainly (and successfully) to allay fears about flies and odours when they switched to alternate weekly collections. To cut collection costs, separated food waste was only taken for composting on alternate weeks, while otherwise going to landfill. It is perhaps little wonder that the council found it saved little on disposal – or that many residents opted out!
Worcester also decided that separate food waste collection would be too costly. Using the admittedly expensive option of separate food waste vehicles, they estimated start-up costs of close to £1m, and running costs of £544k/yr. It isn’t clear how much food they thought would be captured, but they can’t have been very optimistic, as the net disposal saving was estimated at just £200k/yr. But a still greater problem was that this would benefit only the WDA, Worcestershire County Council, and was considered unlikely to be passed back to the City.
Another concern was the lack of suitable facilities nearby to handle the food waste. Worcester thought it risky to commission its own, and found the WDA was reluctant to help:
“The current position of the County Council is that separated food waste disposal is not within their plans for the short, medium or long term. The favoured disposal points for waste from Worcester are Norton (recyclates) and Hartlebury (residual waste, pending construction of energy from waste plant).”
Perhaps the WDA’s position may also have influenced Wychavon’s decision.
Strikingly, part of Tamworth and Lichfield’s rationale for ending food waste collections was that:
“The opening of the Four Ashes Incinerator means that the Authority no longer has to rely on In Vessel Composting as being the only option for diverting food waste from landfill. Returning the food waste to the black bin means that it would be burnt and converted to energy along with all the other residual waste.”
Ending in tiers
A few key points emerge from all this committee room spade work:
- None of the examples in the EFRA evidence show that separate food waste collection for AD is prohibitively expensive. They just confirm that windrows are cheaper than IVCs for garden waste, and that you save no money and don’t win public support by landfilling separately collected food.
- In two tier authorities, the business case for separate food waste collections depends heavily on whether the WDA is supportive.
- Some WDAs with large incinerator contracts appear to have little interest in AD or in supporting steps to divert food waste away from EfW.
It will be interesting to see how Defra acts on the committee’s injunction to divert “more food waste out of the residual waste stream” and to “ensure that waste sent to energy-from-waste plants such as incinerators is only genuinely residual waste”. To do so, the department will need to tackle the myth that household food waste collections are of necessity poor value for money, and ensure that in two tier authorities the right financial arrangements are made to ensure that this is true for districts in practice.