Global Trends in the Biomass Sector

There has been a flurry of activity in the biomass energy and waste-to-energy sector in recent year, with many new projects and initiatives being given the green light across the globe. This movement has been on both a regional and local level; thanks to the increased efficiency of green energy generators and a slight lowering in implementation costs, more businesses and even some homeowners are converting waste-to-energy systems or by installing biomass energy units.

Latest from the United Kingdom

Our first notable example of this comes from Cornwall in the UK. As of this week, a small hotel has entirely replaced its previous oil-based heating system with biomass boilers. Fuelled from wood wastes brought in from a neighboring forest, the BudockVean hotel has so far been successful in keeping the entire establishment warm on two small boilers despite it being the height of British winter – and when warmer weather arrives, plans to install solar panels on the building’s roof is to follow.

Similar projects have been undertaken across small businesses in Britain, including the south-coast city of Plymouth that has just been announced to house a 10MW biomass power plant (alongside a 20MW plant already in construction). These developments arein part thanks to the UK government’s Renewable Heat Incentive which was launched back in 2011. The scheme only provides funding to non-domestic properties currently, but a domestic scheme is in the works this year to help homeowners also move away from fossil fuels.

Initiatives (and Setbacks) in the US

Back across the pond, and the state of New York is also launching a similar scheme. The short-term plan is to increase public education on low-emission heating and persuade a number of large business to make the switch; in the longer term, $800m will be used to install advanced biomass systems in large, state-owned buildings.

A further $40m will be used as part of a competition to help create a series of standalone energy grids in small towns and rural areas, which is a scheme that could hopefully see adopted beyond New York if all goes well.

Unfortunately, the move away from fossil fuels hasn’t been totally plain sailing across the US. Georgia suffered a blow this week as plans to convert a 155MW coal plant to biomass have been abandoned, citing large overheads and low projected returns. The company behind the project have met similar difficulties at other sites, but as of this week are moving ahead with further plans to convert over 2000MW of oil and coal energy generation in the coming years.

Elsewhere in the US, a company has conducted a similar study as to whether biomass plant building will be feasible in both Florida and Louisiana. Surveying has only just been completed, but if things go better than the recent developments in Georgia, the plants will go a long way to converting biomass to fertilizer for widespread use in agriculture in both states.

Far East Leading the Way

One country that is performing particularly well in biomass energy investment market is Japan. Biomass is being increasingly used in power plants in Japan as a source of fuel, particularly after the tragic accident at Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011.  Palm kernel shell (PKS) has emerged as a favorite choice of biomass-based power plants in the country. Most of these biomass power plants use PKS as their energy source, and only a few operate with wood pellets. Interestingly, most of the biomass power plants in Japan have been built after 2015..

On the contrary, the US and Europe saw a fairly big fall in financing during this period; it should be noted, however, that this relates to the green energy investment market as a whole as opposed to biomass-specific funding. The increase seen in Japan has been attributed to an uptake in solar paneling, and if we look specifically to things such as the global demand for biomass pellets, we see that the most recent figures paint the overall market in a much more favorable light for the rest of the world.

Brighter Times Ahead

All in all, it’s an exciting time for the biomass industry despite the set backs which are being experienced in some regions.  On the whole, legislators and businesses are working remarkably well together in order to pave the way forward – being a fairly new market (from a commercially viable sense at least), it has taken a little while to get the ball rolling, but expect to see it blossom quickly now that the idea of biomass is starting to take hold.

Share of Renewables in Energy Supply of UK

The Earth is facing a climate crisis, as the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity and power our cars overloads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, causing a dangerous atmospheric imbalance that’s raising global temperatures.

A report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this month cautioned that the planet has just 12 years to dramatically curb greenhouse gas emissions, by overhauling our energy systems and economies and likely, our societies and political systems. Even a half degree rise beyond that would cause catastrophic sea level rises, droughts, heat, hunger, and poverty, spelling disaster for our species.

UK’s Commitment to Climate Change Mitigation

The UK government has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, a process that will involve overhauling our energy supply, which is responsible for 25% of greenhouse emissions in the country, just behind transport (26% of all emissions). But it may be too little too late. The government has already said it is reviewing these targets in light of the IPCC report and in the spring began consulting on a net-zero carbon emissions target for 2050.

But despite these dire prognoses and the enormity of the task facing us as a species, there’s reason to be optimistic. The UK has already managed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43% on 1990 levels, with much of the reduction coming from a 57% decline in emissions from energy generation. This is in part thanks to several providers offering you the chance to have a 100% renewable domestic energy supply.

Reduction in Coal Usage

The use of coal has plunged nearly overnight in the UK. In 2012, 42% of the UK’s electricity demand was met by coal. Just six years later, in the second quarter of 2018, that figure had fallen to just 1.6%. Emissions from coal-fired power stations fell from 129 million tonnes of CO2 to just 19 million tonnes over the same period.

A coal-free Britain is already on the horizon. In April 2017, the UK logged its first coal-free day since the Industrial Revolution; this past April we extended the run to 76 consecutive hours. In fact, in the second quarter of 2018, all the UK’s coal power stations were offline for a total of 812 hours, or 37% of the time. That’s more coal free hours than were recorded in 2016 and 2017 combined and in just three months.

When the UK does rely on coal power, it’s primarily to balance supplies and to meet demand overnight and during cold snaps, such as during the Beast from the East storm in March. The UK is so certain that coal is a technology of the past, that the government has plans to mothball all seven remaining coal-fired power stations by 2025.

Share of Renewables in Energy Supply

The decline in coal has been matched by an explosion in renewable energy, particularly in wind power. In the second quarter of 2018, renewables generated 31.7% of the UK’s electricity, up from under 9% in 2011. Of those, wind power produced 13.3% of all electricity (7.1% from onshore turbines farms and 6.2% from offshore wind farms), biomass energy contributed another 11% of the UK’s electricity, solar generated 6% and hydro power made up the rest of renewables’ pie share.

The UK’s total installed renewables capacity has exploded, hitting 42.2GW in the second quarter of 2018, up from under 10GW in 2010. That includes 13.7GW of onshore wind capacity and 7.8GW of offshore wind capacity—a figure which will get a boost with the opening in September of the world’s largest wind farm, the Walney Extension, off the coast of Cumbria, itself with a capacity of nearly 0.7GW. Solar panels contributed another 13GW of renewable capacity, and installed plant biomass infrastructure reaching 3.3GW.

However, while renewables are transforming electricity generation in the UK, our energy system consists of more than simply electricity. We also have to account for natural gas and the use of fuel in transport, and renewables have made fewer in roads in those sectors.

The UK is meeting just 9.3% of its total energy needs from renewable sources, short of the 15% it has earmarked for 2020 and far behind its peers in the EU, where Sweden is already running on 53.8% renewable energy.


Emissions are dropping overall in the UK, largely due to an ongoing revolution in electricity generation and a decisive move away from coal. But these reductions have concealed stagnant and even increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors, including transport and agriculture.

Our transition to a sustainable economy has begun but will require more than wind farms and the shuttering of coal-fired power stations. It must encompass electric vehicles, transformed industries, and ultimately changing attitudes toward energy and the environment and our responsibility toward it.

Peeping into the Future of Waste

Waste management is an important tool for curbing climate change and for keeping our environment clean and healthy. Methane generated from biodegradable wastes is a powerful greenhouse gas, and when it’s not captured and used as a fuel it contributes to rapid warming of the atmosphere. Estimates suggest that biodegradable waste in dump sites and uncapped landfill sites are contributing far more methane to the atmosphere than previously thought. What’s more, urban food waste is predicted to increase by 44% from 2005 to 2025, and with no proper management in place, will significantly add to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Worryingly, 38 of the world’s 50 largest dumps are close to the sea, contributing to marine and coastal pollution. The accumulation of plastics in the marine food chain is causing global concern. While we don’t yet know how to clean the oceans, stemming the flow of waste into marine environments would be a step in the right direction.

Wasted health

40% of the world’s waste ends up in open dumps. These aren’t even what you’d call “landfill”. They don’t have any impervious lining to prevent noxious leachate from entering the surrounding environment, nor are they capped to prevent the spread of disease. In fact, in India, the Philippines and Indonesia, the health risk from open dumping of waste is greater than the risk of malaria[i].

3.5 billion people in the world lack access to proper waste management. That figure is expected to grow to 5 billion by 2050. Respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal diseases and occupational health risks add to the misery experienced by the 50,000+ people living from open dumps.

Waste is any material that is no longer wanted for its original purpose. The owner doesn’t have a need for it, and so discards it. Even valuable items can and do end up as waste purely because someone has thrown them away. The recent (and rather brilliant) BBC programme Hugh’s War on Waste shone the spotlight on attitudes towards disposable fashion. A look through the bins of a typical street uncovered a startling amount of clothing that had been thrown away, despite it still being in perfectly good condition. This highlights a simple fact: there is plenty of value in waste.

  • Estimates suggest there are 40 million people globally who are making their living from waste – half of these are working informally.
  • During the last recession in the UK, the waste management sector was one of the only industries to keep growing, resulting in it being termed the “Green Star of the Economy”.
  • Showing people how to turn a waste stream into something valuable isn’t rocket science. There are lots of examples of informal, community-based, grassroots recycling and upcycling projects that generate wealth for the poorest in society.
  • Internet is allowing simple waste processing techniques to be replicated all over the world, and helping make that information accessible is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career.

Business skills

“Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Show a man how to fish and he can eat for the rest of his life.” Teaching people how to make valuable products from waste is important. But just as important, is passing on the business skills to be able to identify a market, factor in costs, check out the competition, market their products and run a successful business.

Development work in the waste arena needs to address both sides of the coin, and in doing so will enable people to start up their own businesses, in their own communities, and generate wealth organically. That’s far more valuable than delivering aid in a ready-made package (which incidentally rarely works – there’s a great TED Talk on this topic by Ernesto Sirolli, called “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen”).

Why closing dumps isn’t a silver bullet

The proliferation of megacities, particularly in developing countries, is causing a health crisis. Decent waste management is an indicator of good governance – that is, if a council or government can collect taxes and provide a waste management service, then it most likely isn’t (very) corrupt. However, in many places where corruption or other forms of bad or weak governance prevail, top-down solutions are notoriously difficult to implement.

Often, when the world’s attention turns to an open dump, the government responds by closing it and the journalists go home. This is what happened with Smokey Mountain dumpsite in the Philippines (and many others around the world). All that happens is another open dump emerges nearby, and the scavengers move to the new site.

The problem is that if there is no alternative solution in place, people will discard of their waste in the only ways available – dumping it or burning it; and the poor will follow the waste.

Replacing an open dump with a government-controlled waste management system isn’t a silver bullet either. The losers, again, are the hundreds, and sometimes thousands of men, women and children who live from scavenging from the dump. It may seem horrific to many of us, but the truth is that if you take that opportunity to earn a paltry living away from the poorest in society, they will starve. Solutions need to be inclusive.

Power to the people

To close dump sites, you need to have a workable alternative solution in place. You need to have regular waste collection taking place, and you need somewhere to take it. Building materials recovery facilities alongside existing open dumps is one idea. Informal waste pickers who are currently working in dangerous conditions on the dumpsite can gain employment (or better still, form a cooperative) sorting recyclable materials and reducing the amount of real “waste” that needs to be disposed of.

For example, Wecyclers in Lagos, Nigeria employs people to cycle around collecting recyclable materials from households. In return for their source-separated waste, the householder receives a small reward.

In Bangalore, IGotGarbage has harnessed the power of phone apps to enable people who were previously waste pickers to be called directly to a house to collect the waste materials. Solutions like this work because they continue to provide livelihoods for people, while taking waste off the streets.

The need for appropriate technology

There will always be something left though: the stuff that really has little value other than the energy embodied in it. In industrialised countries, energy-from-waste incinerators have become popular. Seen as a clean alternative to landfill, these facilities burn the waste, release the energy, and convert it into heat, electricity and ash. Some of that ash (from the air pollution control system) still needs to be disposed of in specially-prepared hazardous waste landfill sites. The remainder, being fairly benign, can be used to make concrete building blocks.

However, incinerators are fairly technology-heavy, rendering them unsuitable for many developing country contexts.

A problem that we’ve witnessed is that waste management companies from industrialised nations try to wholesale their technology in developing countries. The technology is usually unaffordable, and even if the capital can be raised to procure a facility, as soon as something breaks down the whole solution can fall apart.

There is a need for information about simple waste processing technologies to become more open-sourced. Smart future-thinking businesses could capitalise on selling blueprints rather than entire prefabricated facilities. Most of the time it’s far cheaper to fabricate something locally, and also means that when something breaks it can be fixed.

The continuing need for landfill

The fact is that in most cases, a standard, lined landfill site with landfill gas capture is still the most appropriate answer for non-recyclable waste. Add to that a well-organised, low-cost waste collection service with source separation of recyclable materials and biodegradable waste, and you have a relatively affordable solution that is better for the climate, better for health, better for the local economy, and contributes to a more sustainable future.

Landfill may seem very unfashionable to those of us who work in the recycling sector, but nevertheless it will remain a necessity both in developed and developing countries for the foreseeable future.

Joining forces and stepping stones

The success of the Sustainable Development Goals and potential Climate Change Agreement depend on developed and developing countries working together. Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU climate commissioner, said the Climate Coalition alliance showed that developed and developing countries could work together with a common interest. “These negotiations are not about them and us. They are about all of us, developed and developing countries, finding common ground and solutions together. We urge other countries to join us. Together we can do it.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and we are facing a waste crisis of unprecedented proportion. The potential for waste management in reducing GHG emissions has never been more pertinent. Waste and development practitioners, academics and entrepreneurs around the world are working together more and more to help bring about the change we want to see, which will benefit the billions of people suffering from poor waste management, and the rest of us who share a warming planet – and share the burden of climate change and poverty.

By sharing knowledge through platforms such as beWasteWise and ISWA, and through initiatives like WasteAidWASTE and Wiego, we can start making a dent in this very large problem.

No silver bullets, but lots of small stepping stones in the right direction.

Note: The original and unabridged version of the article can be found at this link. Please visit for more information about the author.

Food Waste Management – Consumer Behavior and FWDs

food-waste-managementFood waste is a global issue that begins at home and as such, it is an ideal contender for testing out new approaches to behaviour change. The behavioural drivers that lead to food being wasted are complex and often inter-related, but predominantly centre around purchasing habits, and the way in which we store, cook, eat and celebrate food.

Consumer Behavior – A Top Priority

Consumer behaviour is a huge priority area in particular for industrialised nations – it is estimated that some western societies might be throwing away up to a third of all food purchased. The rise of cheap food and convenience culture in recent years has compounded this problem, with few incentives or disincentives in place at producer, retail or consumer level to address this.

While it is likely that a number of structural levers – such as price, regulation, enabling measures and public benefits – will need to be pulled together in a coherent way to drive progress on this agenda, at a deeper level there is a pressing argument to explore the psycho-social perspectives of behaviour change.

Individual or collective behaviours often exist within a broader cultural context of values and attitudes that are hard to measure and influence. Simple one-off actions such as freezing leftovers or buying less during a weekly food shop do not necessarily translate into daily behaviour patterns. For such motivations to have staying power, they must become instinctive acts, aligned with an immediate sense of purpose. The need to consider more broadly our behaviours and how they are implicated in such issues must not stop at individual consumers, but extend to governments, businesses and NGOs if effective strategies are to be drawn up.

Emergence of Food Waste Disposers

Food waste disposer (FWDs), devices invented and adopted as a tool of convenience may now represent a unique new front in the fight against climate change. These devices, commonplace in North America, Australia and New Zealand work by shredding household or commercial food waste into small pieces that pass through a municipal sewer system without difficulty.

The shredded food particles are then conveyed by existing wastewater infrastructure to wastewater treatment plants where they can contribute to the generation of biogas via anaerobic digestion. This displaces the need for generation of the same amount of biogas using traditional fossil fuels, thereby averting a net addition of greenhouse gases (GHG) to the atmosphere.

Food waste is an ideal contender for testing new approaches to behaviour change.

The use of anaerobic digesters is more common in the treatment of sewage sludge, as implemented in the U.K., but not as much in the treatment of food waste. In addition to this, food waste can also replace methanol (produced from fossil fuels) and citric acid used in advanced wastewater treatment processes which are generally carbon limited.

Despite an ample number of studies pointing to the evidence of positive impacts of FWDs, concerns regarding its use still exist, notably in Europe. Scotland for example has passed legislation that bans use of FWDs, stating instead that customers must segregate their waste and make it available curbside for pickup. This makes it especially difficult for the hospitality industry, to which the use of disposer is well suited. The U.S. however has seen larger scale adoption of the technology due to the big sales push it received in the 1950s and 60s. In addition to being just kitchen convenience appliances, FWDs are yet to be widely accepted as a tool for positive environmental impact.

Note: Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Pet Waste Management in UK – Prospects and Challenges

pet-wastesPet waste is a growing public health and environmental risk. According to a report commissioned by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, 13 million UK households (45%) keep pets of some kind.  Cats and dogs are each kept by 8.5 million households (these numbers are not additive, as some will of course keep both).

Can those of us who want both the joys of animal companionship and waste minimisation, find ways to cut down, or better manage, the huge amount of pet waste generated in the UK every year? With so many cats and dogs in the UK, pet waste must represent a significant mass of organic matter within the residual waste stream.

Does this waste represent a floater in the residual waste stream by necessity—due to inherently unpleasant and possibly dangerous characteristics of the waste—or is it only there out of convention and squeamishness?

I’ve written before about the relationship between waste management and squeamishness, and talking about faeces really brings the point home. There are some undoubtedly nasty pathogens present in pet faeces, notably the parasites Toxocariasis and Toxoplasmosis. But might these be safely killed off by the temperatures reached in anaerobic digestion (AD)? If so, provided any litter and bags were made of organic matter, might pet waste be collected along with food waste?

I began by contacting a local authority waste officer, but was told that no one had asked this question before, and that I might be better off talking to AD plant operators. This I did, but most seemed similarly baffled by my query.  However, one mentioned that AD digestate goes through a pasteurisation process, where it is heated to a temperature of 70oC for one hour, in order to make it safe for land application. I also attempted to contact some technical specialists in the field, but to no avail.

There are some theoretical indications that this pasteurisation should be sufficient. Hanna Mizgajska-Wiktor and Shoji Uga’s  essay Exposure and Environmental Contamination states: “Anaerobic waste treatment kills Toxocara spp. eggs at temperatures in excess of 45oC”, well below the 70oC mentioned by my operator. The susceptibility of Toxoplasma to heat is less clear, although numerous internet sources suggest this can be killed in meat by cooking at 66oC. So far, then, I haven’t confirmed or falsified my initial inkling, and so the collection of pet waste in the municipal organic stream remains a theoretical possibility.

Motivated dog owners  can already turn their pet’s waste into a resource within their own home. The website London Worms explains how you can turn your dog’s poo into rich and useful vermicompost, although it warns that the results will only be suitable for use on non-edible plants.

Foul Pay

Household pet droppings may still be largely fated for disposal, but even when binned this waste is at least moving through proper waste management channels.  Unfortunately, not all pet poo is binned, and we have real data measuring public perceptions of the disamenity resulting from dog fouling. For most, the presence of this unwelcome waste in our streets, parks and footpaths is of much higher concern than its diversion from landfill.

A 2011 Defra-funded study on local residents’ willingness-to-pay — via an increase in council tax — for improvements across a range of environmental factors found that dog fouling was the third most important issue out of the presented range (with litter and fly-tipping taking first and second place). Surveys were conducted in inner-city, suburban and rural/semi-rural areas around London, Manchester and Coventry.

In order to move from the current level of dog fouling to the best possible scenario, it was found that inner-city residents would on average be willing to pay £8.87 per month, suburban residents £7.79 per month, and rural residents £2.72. Combining these figures with population statistics allows us to place a disamenity value on dog fouling. National statistics only allow for an urban-rural split, but based on a 2012 Defra rurality study which found that 18.9% of the population lives in rural areas, we can calculate that across England we would collectively be willing to pay £462m per year to achieve best case scenario improvements in dog fouling.

This somewhat crude calculation gives an indication of the perceived disamenity of dog fouling. Presenting the matter in terms such as these may allow economically minded policy makers a means of engaging with this important street scene issue and evaluating the costs and benefits of interventions.

Food for Thought

Let’s wash our hands of poo (with plenty of soap and warm water) and look to the other end of the pet waste problem. According to a report published by WRAP, the UK uses around 75,000 tonnes of primary packaging annually. This holds 1,263,000 tonnes of wet and dry cat and dog food, of which 9,000 uneaten tonnes are thrown away. Although this wasted food constitutes less than 1% of the total sold (if only we were as careful with food for human consumption) the estimated cost to the consumer is still £21m a year.

WRAP examined a number of designs intended to cut to down on the amounts of both pet food and packaging thrown away. A major problem with packaging design is the need to account for portion sizes, which vary from animal to animal and change depending on age and level of activity. Single serve packaging may actually lead to regular food wastage if the portion provided is too big for a particular pet; indeed, this is a problem I am experiencing with my own cat, whose appetite seems to fluctuate wildly. Re-sealable packaging that allows owners to dish out meals in accordance with the changing appetites of their pets is therefore preferable.

The material that packaging is made of is also significant: for example, relatively heavy tins are recyclable, whereas lightweight plasticised plastic foil packets are not. Pet food and its packaging can be pushed up the waste hierarchy by simply choosing a recyclable and resealable container which will allow them to adequately provide for the appetite of their pet. However, these issues are likely to be given less weight compared with health, convenience and cost in the minds of most householders. The onus has to be on manufacturers to develop packaging which is both low cost and easily recyclable.

Love pets, hate waste?

People love animals, but are rather less keen to engage with pets as an environmental issue. Leaving aside questions of whether it is sustainable for so many of us to have pets at all, there are clearly ways in which we can reduce their impact. The convenience of single serving pouches of pet food seems to win out over more recyclable and waste-avoiding alternatives, although pet owners might be willing to change their choices if presented with a better option.

While worrying about recovery options for cat poo might seem somewhat academic, it may be easier to tackle than dog fouling. It might even help to tackle the common psycho-social root of both issues. Cultural distaste perhaps lies behind the lack of information available on dealing with household pet waste, and the persistence of dog fouling as a street scene issue. Things were very different in Victorian London when “pure finders” earned a living by seeking out doggie doo to supply the tanning trade. But for us this kind of waste is a disagreeable fact of life which we deal with as simply and with as little thought as possible. But as a nation of animal lovers, it’s our responsibility to engage with the waste management issues our pets present.

Note: The article is being republished with the kind permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original article can be viewed at this link

Food Waste Management in USA

food_wasteFood waste is an untapped energy source that mostly ends up rotting in landfills, thereby releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Food waste is difficult to treat or recycle since it contains high levels of sodium salt and moisture, and is mixed with other waste during collection. Major generators of food wastes include hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, residential blocks, cafeterias, airline caterers, food processing industries, etc.

In United States, food waste is the third largest waste stream after paper and yard waste. Around 13 percent of the total municipal solid waste generated in the country is contributed by food scraps. According to USEPA, more than 35 million tons of food waste are thrown away into landfills or incinerators each year, which is around 40 percent of all food consumed in the country. As far as United Kingdom is concerned, households throw away around 8 million tons of food each year. These statistics are an indication of tremendous amount of food waste generated all over the world.

Food Waste Management Strategy

The proportion of food waste in municipal waste stream is gradually increasing and hence a proper food waste management strategy needs to be devised to ensure its eco-friendly and sustainable disposal. The two most common methods for food waste recycling are:

  • Composting: A treatment that breaks down biodegradable waste by naturally occurring micro-organisms with oxygen, in an enclosed vessel or tunnel;
  • Anaerobic digestion (AD): A treatment that breaks down biodegradable waste in the absence of oxygen, producing a renewable energy (biogas) that can be used to generate electricity and heat.

Currently, only about 3 percent of food waste is recycled throughout U.S., mainly through composting. Composting provides an alternative to landfill disposal of food waste, however it requires large areas of land, produces volatile organic compounds and consumes energy. Consequently, there is an urgent need to explore better recycling alternatives. Anaerobic digestion has been successfully used in several European and Asian countries to stabilize food wastes, and to provide beneficial end-products. Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Germany and England have led the way in developing new advanced biogas technologies and setting up new projects for conversion of food waste into energy.

Of the different types of organic wastes available, food waste holds the highest potential in terms of economic exploitation as it contains high amount of carbon and can be efficiently converted into biogas and organic fertilizer. Food waste can either be used as a single substrate in a biogas plant, or can be co-digested with organic wastes like cow manure, poultry litter, sewage, crop residues, abattoir wastes, etc.

Food waste is one of the single largest constituent of municipal solid waste stream.  Diversion of food waste from landfills can provide significant contribution towards climate change mitigation, apart from generating revenues and creating employment opportunities. Rising energy prices and increasing environmental pollution makes it more important to harness renewable energy from food wastes. Anaerobic digestion technology is widely available worldwide and successful projects are already in place in several European as well as Asian countries which makes it imperative on waste generators and environmental agencies in USA to strive for a sustainable food waste management system.

Food Waste Management in UK

Food-Waste-UKFood waste in the United Kingdom is a matter of serious environmental, economic and social concern that has been attracting widespread attention in recent years. According to ‘Feeding the 5K’ organisation, 13,000 slices of crusts are thrown away every day by a single sandwich factory which is featured in the figure above. More recently, Tesco, one of the largest UK food retailers, has published its sustainability report admitting that the company generated 28,500 tonnes of food waste in the first six months of 2013. TESCO’s report also state that 47% of the bakery produced is wasted. In terms of GHG emissions, DEFRA estimated that food waste is associated with 20 Mt of CO2 equivalent/year, which is equivalent to 3% of the total annual GHG emissions.

Globally, 1.2 to 2 billion tonnes (30%-50%) of food produced is thrown away before it reaches a human stomach. Food waste, if conceived as a state, is responsible for 3.3 Bt-CO2 equivalent/year, which would make it the third biggest carbon emitter after China and USA. What makes food waste an even more significant issue is the substantially high demand for food which is estimated to grow 70% by 2050 due to the dramatic increase of population which is expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2075. Therefore, there is an urgent need to address food waste as a globally challenging issue which should be considered and tackled by sustainable initiatives.

A War on Food Waste

The overarching consensus to tackle the food waste issue has led to the implementation of various policies. For instance, the European Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC) set targets to reduce organic waste disposed to landfill in 2020 to 35% of that disposed in 1995 (EC 1999). More recently, the European Parliament discussed a proposal to “apply radical measures” to halve food waste by 2025 and to designate the 2014 year as “the European Year Against Food Waste”. In the light of IMechE’s report (2013), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in cooperation with FAO has launched the Save Food Initiative in an attempt to reduce food waste generated in the global scale.

In the UK, WRAP declared a war on food waste by expanding its organic waste programme in 2008 which was primarily designed to “establish the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways of diverting household food waste from landfill that leads to the production of a saleable product”. DEFRA has also identified food waste as a “priority waste stream” in order to achieve better waste management performance. In addition to governmental policies, various voluntary schemes have been introduced by local authorities such as Nottingham Declaration which aims to cut local CO2 emissions 60% by 2050.

Sustainable Food Waste Management

Engineering has introduced numerous technologies to deal with food waste. Many studies have been carried out to examine the environmental and socio-economic impacts of food waste management options. This article covers the two most preferable options; anaerobic digestion and composting.

In-vessel composting (IVC) is a well-established technology which is widely used to treat food waste aerobically and convert it into a valuable fertilizer. IVC is considered a sustainable option because it helps by reducing the amount of food waste landfilled. Hence, complying with the EU regulations, and producing a saleable product avoiding the use of natural resources. IVC is considered an environmentally favourable technology compared with other conventional options (i.e. landfill and incineration). It contributes less than 0.06% to the national greenhouse gas inventories. However, considering its high energy-intensive collection activities, the overall environmental performance is “relatively poor”.

Anaerobic Digestion (AD) is a leading technology which has had a rapidly growing market over the last few years. AD is a biologically natural process in which micro-organisms anaerobically break down food waste and producing biogas which can be used for both Combined Heat & Power (CHP) and digestate that can be used as soil fertilizers or conditioners. AD has been considered as the “best option” for food waste treatment. Therefore, governmental and financial support has been given to expand AD in the UK.

AD is not only a food waste treatment technology, but also a renewable source of energy. For instance, It is expected that AD would help the UK to meet the target of supplying 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Furthermore, AD technology has the potential to boost the UK economy by providing 35,000 new jobs if the technology is adopted nationally to process food waste. This economic growth will significantly improve the quality of life among potential beneficiaries and thus all sustainability elements are considered.

Electrical Waste Collection Strategies in the UK

When disposing of small electrical items from the home, most householders only have the option of visiting their local recycling facility to drop them off. However, in order to meet recycling targets, local authorities in the UK are now considering kerbside (or curbside) collections of small domestic appliances.  This is expected to help prevent small electrical items being placed into the general waste/refuse containers from households.

This waste stream has become a priority as figures show that the average amount of WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) recycled per person is only 1.3kg. The original WEEE directive targeted 4kg per person, as a recycling rate, so there is a considerable shortfall. It is important that householders find it easy to recycle their items in order to increase the rates.

Initial trials have taken place to assess the viability of these kerbside collections and the following conclusions were made:

  • On collections, small electrical items were often damaged, so the reuse of items was less likely.
  • Levels of recycling were encouraging at 140 grams per household.
  • The monetary value of the separated materials of the small items showed that a positive net value could be achieved.

Whilst the potential reuse of small electrical items was reduced it was a positive that local authorities could generate revenues from the collections. Quarterly or bi-annual collection frequencies would ensure volumes of equipment on the collections were maximised. Due to the success of the trials, the UK is likely to see more and more local authorities adopt some form of collection schedule for small electrical waste items.

An old refrigerator uses almost four times the electricity of a new one

Larger electrical items such as washing machines and fridge freezers pose a different collection issue. Some local authorities offer a collection service for bulky electrical items, however due to their size, weight and manpower requirements there is often a charge. As with smaller electrical items, you can deliver these to the local recycling facility, but you may not be able to fit these into your own vehicle. It is best to check with the local recycling facility on the options available and possibly even if they allow large, commercial sized vehicles onto site.

The collection of small electrical items from householders will ultimately increase the amount of electrical waste being recycled in the UK. It will also further promote the recycling of such items instead of placing them into general waste containers. Going forward it is hoped that more local authorities will adopt a collection schedule even if only bi-annually from their local householders.

Behavioral Drivers Behind Food Wastes

food-waste-behaviorBy 2075, the United Nations estimates the global population will peak at 9.5 billion, an extra 3 billion mouths to feed by the end of the century. Meanwhile, while we produce about four billion tonnes of food annually, it is estimated that 30-50% of this never reaches our plates. Of the food that does reach us, some western societies throw away up to a third of all food purchased. This has enormous implications for the global environment, from wasting the water used to grow the food to adverse effects on climate, land and biodiversity.

The drivers behind these phenomenal levels of food waste are complex and include food pricing, logistical and storage issues. However, given the significant level of waste that happens within the households of societies like the UK and US, it is useful and informative to consider those behaviours that drive this level of waste.

The quality of data around food waste, as with much of waste data, has historically been poor. To this end, WRAP commissioned groundbreaking research in the UK in 2006/7 to act as a baseline to their Love Food Hate Waste campaign. This came up with the alarming statistic that 1/3 of food bought by a UK household was thrown away. Until this time, there had been no comprehensive research, either by food manufacturers, retailers or interest groups, suggesting the importance of government, or some other dis-interested party, taking a lead on the issue.

Back to Basics

There may be a link between the amount of time spent preparing food, and the skill and effort that goes into this, and the amount of food waste produced. This has led to a loss of confidence in the kitchen, with individuals losing basic skills that allow them to cook with leftovers, understand food labeling, including Best Before and Use By, even basic storing. WRAP had found little evidence of best practice storage advice so carried out the research themselves – leading the (surprising for many) conclusion that fruit such as apples and pears are best stored in the fridge wrapped in a plastic cover. However, this has masked a larger trend of less time spent in the kitchen, due to demographic changes. This of course begs the question – how should we use this when trying to reduce food waste? Should we encourage people to cook from scratch as a principle?

Although waste prevention and recycling are clearly separated within the waste hierarchy, there are apparent links between the two when considering food waste. There is an urgent need for legislation to enforce separate food waste collections, not only to ensure it was diverted to anaerobic digestion or composting, but also as it led to greater self awareness around food waste. WRAP research has clearly showed a fall in food waste when separate food waste collections were introduced.

Role of Packaging

Historically, packaging has always been a high priority to the public when asked about priorities for reducing waste. However, as awareness of food waste has grown, a more nuanced position has developed among waste managers. While excess packaging is clearly undesirable, and, within the UK for instance, the Courtauld Commitment  has helped reduced grocery packaging by 2.9 million tonnes of waste so far, there is a realization of the importance of food packaging in preserving food and hence reducing food waste.

Making food easily accessible and affordable by many, it could be argued, is one of the crowning achievements of our age. Over the last century, the proportion of household income that is spent on food has plummeted, and there is a direct link to malnutrition and food prices, particularly for children. But does cheap food mean that it is less valued and hence greater wastage? Is the answer expensive food? The evidence from WRAP in the UK is that food waste is still a serious economic issue for households, and underlining the economic case for reducing food waste a major incentive for households, especially as food prices are not entering an era of increase and instability, providing added economic urgency

Political Persuasions

Different political persuasions often differ in the approaches they take to changing behaviours and food waste is no different. In the UK, the Courtauld Commitment is a voluntary agreement aimed at encouraging major retailers to take responsibility mainly for packaging, later growing to encompass food waste, voluntary and so far has seen a 21% reduction in food waste post-consumer.

Meanwhile Wales (in the UK) effectively banned food waste from landfill. Scotland has ensured that businesses make food waste available for separate collection – again it’s only once you see it, you can manage it. Campaigns like the UK’s Love Food Hate Waste have been successful but measuring food waste prevention, as with all waste prevention, is notoriously difficult. But, people are now widely aware of food waste as an issue – we even see celebrity chefs actively talking about food waste reduction and recipes involving leftovers or food that is about to go off.

There is clearly a balance between food waste and food safety, with a commitment to reducing food waste throughout the retail and catering world, not just at home. By engaging environmental health officers to help deliver this, a potentially conflicting message can be delivered in a nuanced and balanced way. Indeed, environmental health officers in Scotland will be responsible for ensuring that Scottish food businesses present their food waste for separate collection.

Role of Communication

It is worth considering how the message should be communicated, and by whom. The community sector are more trusted by the public than government and the private sector are more effective at imparting personal, deeply held beliefs – the sort of beliefs that need to change if we are to see long term changes in attitudes towards consumption and hence waste production.

Furthermore, communications can engage wider audiences that hold an interest in reducing food waste that is perhaps not primarily environmental. The health and economic benefits of issues and behaviours that also result in food waste prevention may be the prevalent message that fits with a particular audience. So whilst the main aim of a training session might be food waste prevention, this is may not be the external message. And this has wider implications for waste prevention, and how we engage audiences around it.

Municipal authorities tasked with waste prevention will need to engage with new groups, in new ways. They will have to consider approaches previously considered to be beyond their powers to engage new audiences – should they be partnering with public health authorities with an interest in nutrition, or social housing providers that are focused on financial inclusion.

Should waste prevention even be a discipline in itself? After all, across material streams it is a motley assortment of behaviours with different drivers. Furthermore, with the knots that one can tie oneself in trying to measure waste that doesn’t get generated, – therefore doesn’t exist – should we integrate waste prevention in to other socio-economic programmes and position it as an “added benefit” to them?

Note: The article is being republished with the permission of our collaborative partner be Waste Wise. The unabridged version can be found at this link. Special thanks to the author Mike Webster.