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Turning waste into money: Food waste recycling in a regenerative circular economy

01 February 2018
Family Law
The economic, social and environmental impact of food waste recycling is very topical - controversial issues over food waste supplies have been politicised by debates on food banks and increasingly this has had an impact on the renewables energy sector, for example anaerobic digestion (AD). Due to the increased attention, today's ethical consumer is becoming increasingly interested in how food manufacturers and retailers dispose of their food waste. 

Latest initiatives

The Food Waste Recycling Action Plan (FWRAP) cross-industry initiative recently published its report on food waste recycling. The initiative is designed to improve the capture, supply and the quality of household and commercial food waste. In the UK, it is estimated that between 6 and 7 million tonnes of food waste is still not captured within the supply chain and ends up being landfilled.

The initiative seeks to identify current supply chain blockages having an impact on the full potential for the collection and recycling of food waste. In addition, the Waste & Resources Action Plan (WRAP) have also updated their guidance document to assist AD operators in relation to food waste in liners (particularly plastic liners) in order to limit physical contamination ending up in digestate which could have an impact on the operator's compliance with PAS 110*. The guidance includes contractual specifications, pre-waste acceptance procedures, on-site waste acceptance procedures, identification of contamination prior to treatment and removal and management of contamination.

Of course there are also a wide range of options available to try and avoid food becoming waste at all.  Many enterprises, like Company Shop and other social enterprises, are supporting the food supply chain with taking the excess capacity of in date and good quality food, and selling through their channels.  These models provide an alternate route to market for foods that historically may have date expired or had to have been sent to landfill.  Every stage of the supply chain now presents opportunities in a way that did not exist just a few years ago and ensures that not only commercial opportunities are maximised by the circular economy can reduce the impact on the environment.

Food packaging is also very much in the cross-hairs with several announcements on the reduction of plastics and Iceland's announcement on how it is going to become plastic free. We have seen calls for 25p tax on disposable coffee cups and widening calls for more recyclable packaging.  

All of which is laudable but care has to be taken to ensure that reusable products are actually better for the environment as they are invariably heavier and take more resources to produce, clean and transport and therefore this broader equation has to be considered as we work towards reducing the reliance on plastic. 

Upcoming governmental support

Despite the disappointing announcement in the Autumn Budget that there will be no new subsidies for clean power projects until 2025, new levies may still be considered ‘where they have a net reduction effect on bills and are consistent with the Government’s energy strategy’. The Renewable Energy Association (REA) suspects however that AD will not benefit from this as it is not seen amongst the cheapest forms of renewable energy generation. The Governments' Clean Growth Strategy mentions AD and the need to improve digestion and minimise impacts on air quality and it has committed to publish a Bioeconomy Strategy and to move towards a regenerative Circular Economy which, amongst other processes, includes AD.

The future

The Clean Growth Strategy particularly focusses on food waste recycling and the need to divert more food waste than ever before from landfill - supporting resource productivity and avoiding emissions by preventing food waste in the first instance. The target of no food waste entering landfill by 2030 is ambitious, however there is a real urge for closer working relationships within the industry to help:
  • identify opportunities;
  • unlock supply chain blockages;
  • achieve even greater levels of recycling
  • improve the utilisation of food and biowaste; and
  • incentivise activities such as reuse, repair and remanufacturing.

This increased impetuous to revitalise the food sectors waste recycling strategy can produce many winners including food manufacturers, retailers, AD operators as well as consumers and UK taxpayers. The Government estimates that taking action through the Courtauld 2025 Agreement to reduce food waste could produce savings of up to £20 billion to the UK economy between 2015 and 2025.

If you have any questions please contact Dominic Watkins, Partner & Head of Food or Christian Hellmund, Partner.   

*PAS 110 is a publicly-available specification which aims to remove the major barrier to the development of AD and its markets for digestion process outputs by creating an industry specification against which producers can verify that they are of consistent quality and fit for purpose. Read more about it on the WRAP website.

Find out about some of the other big trends facing the food industry this year > 

Further Reading