The average UK household throws away 260 kg of food and drink per year.
The Love Food Hate Waste campaign addresses this by encouraging us all to avoid wasting so much food, through better meal planning and storage of food. Wasting less food definitely deserves to be a priority, but at the same time we need to acknowledge that some food waste, like banana skins, eggshells, and teabags, is unavoidable.
For those inevitable kitchen scraps, composting is a wonderful response: instead of seeing this food as ‘waste’, it can be returned to the soil, where its nutrients will be re-used to promote healthy earth and in turn close the circle by growing more food. Of all the re-usable waste collected at the kerbside in the UK, 40% is compostable green waste, according to the UK government.
According to Tucker and Farrelly, most people would choose to compost their kitchen waste if they had convenient facilities to do so. Sheffield City Council does not offer a kerbside collection service for kitchen waste, nor do they have any plans to do so in the near future. Instead, the council likes the idea of home composting, and have paired up with Get Composting to encourage Sheffield people to reduce food waste and sort their back gardens out at the same time. Only problem is, a lot of Sheffield houses don’t have much of a garden. Most urban Sheffield residents have little choice but to put their kitchen waste into the black bin.
Separate kerbside collections for recycling – the blue bins – do already exist and are used across all of Sheffield[i]. Paper and card goes to Veolia’s ‘Materials Recovery Facility’, where 98% of it is recycled back into paper products. Other recyclable material is distributed to various facilities around the UK and the world to be recycled.
Could a similar collection system work for compostable kitchen waste? Plenty of UK cities already offer a separate kitchen waste collection service, such as Gloucester, Bristol, Bournemouth, and Oxford. Collections of kitchen waste are usually used to produce compost as well as liquid fertilizer to use on local land. In Gloucester the waste is anaerobically digested to produce natural gas, which is fed into the grid, as well as liquid fertilizer. While there are many different systems for dealing with food waste sustainably, there are still big differences between the local authorities who think food waste is important, and those who don’t. This article by Slater and Frederickson explains why UK local authorities need to work together for a technically efficient and sustainable approach to composting kitchen waste. Sheffield could follow the model of another UK city to pilot kerbside compost collections – so why hasn’t this happened yet?
Sheffield City Council has a contract with Veolia for waste management. Veolia has a huge incinerator in Sheffield, cheerfully named the Energy Recovery Facility (ERF). This incinerator has long been the centre of protests and controversy, blamed for emitting pollutants, wasting valuable recyclable resources, and for being built to operate above the necessary capacity. Since the ERF must be kept fed with a certain volume of waste to operate at maximum profit efficiency, there is no incentive to reduce the waste stream coming in by diverting the compostable and recyclable resources away into more sustainable processes. (This list sums up the problems with the incinerator quite nicely).
The UK government admits that the main incentive for local authorities to use incinerators is to avoid paying the landfill tax. Although generating electricity from incinerating waste is arguably better than dumping it in landfill, it would be far better to reuse, recycle, and compost as much waste as possible.
If the UK is to meet EU targets, we need to be recycling or composting at least 50% of household rubbish by 2020. Currently the national rate of household recycling in England is around 44%[ii]. However, there are big differences between local authorities, and Sheffield is falling miserably behind, with just 30% of our household waste being put back into the resource stream. Neighbouring Barnsley is already meeting EU targets, with 52% of household waste being recycled.
According to Veolia, up to 60% of Sheffield’s household rubbish is compostable. If Sheffield wants to be known as a ‘green’ city on a European level, then we need to divert that 60% away from the incinerator feed and back into nutrients to feed the soil.
Wasting food is a huge problem globally, and it’s not just about finishing what’s on your plate. We need to see the bigger picture: unavoidable food waste should be seen as a valuable resource that can be used, as compost, to ensure higher yields and better quality food grown later on. To make sure that food waste does not become a wasted resource, we need to stop sending it up in smoke!
[i] Although these are not without problems: http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/call-for-change-at-sheffield-waste-recycling-centres-1-7099269
[ii] This figure includes recycling, re-use, and composting.