Guest piece by Faye Lowth
A report released by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in 2015 stated that the UK generated an average of 10.2 million tonnes of food waste per year. This astounding figure leads to one of the most pressing environmental questions: where does all of our food waste go? Some of our food waste is used as compost, or converted to natural gas, however, most ends up in landfill.
Managing Food Waste
The use of food remains as compost is undoubtedly the most sustainable method of managing this waste. Compost is made when organic waste (i.e. paper, vegetables, egg-shells etc.) is decomposed by microorganisms. The process can take anywhere between three months and two years to complete. When used in agriculture, compost provides nutrients beneficial to soil health thereby improving plant growth. As a result, the use of compost minimizes or eliminates the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which are detrimental to the environment.
Food waste can also be used as a source of renewable energy. When organic waste undergoes anaerobic digestion, it becomes biogas, which is then burned to produce electricity. The generation of electricity using this process not only reduces food waste, but also reduces the combustion of fossil fuels.
Despite many councils’ efforts to collect and divert food waste, a large amount is still ending up in landfills. Due to the absence of necessary air and moisture, the food waste in landfills does not break down and instead contributes to the release of methane into the atmosphere.
Food waste ends up in landfill primarily because not all councils have adopted a food waste management system. In 2016, due to reduced local authority budgets less than half of all UK councils collected food waste. Another problem, is that many individuals with access to such collection systems are not using them properly.
Furthermore, the problem is not confined to landfills. Although it reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, the incineration of food waste to generate electricity is also cause for concern. Firstly, high temperatures are needed to form biogas from food waste, requiring a lot of energy. Moreover, the combustion of biogas releases the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. In fact, more than 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (due to incineration and landfills) are emitted, equating to the emissions of 3.5 million cars in a year.
What Can We Do?
The solution to this problem lies in the cooperation of all relevant stakeholders. The government should allocate relevant funding for councils to adopt food waste collection systems. Councils, NGOs, retailers and brands should attempt to raise awareness about the importance of separating food waste from other waste. This would give individuals the understanding of how to use food bins correctly. Furthermore, Love Food Hate Waste has many resources educating consumers on how they can reduce their food waste.
Councils should improve how they manage food waste collection, to ensure that as little food waste ends up in landfills as possible. Brands and retailers should commit to WRAP’s Target, Measure and Act scheme to reduce their own food waste, as well as their suppliers’ and consumers’. Individuals using food bins can also persuade others to do the same.
We must all be equally resolute to fix the complexity of our food management system.