Domestic food waste disposal not coming to Plymouth in the immediate future

Currently, one-third of all food that is produced with a purpose for human consumption is wasted. This equates to 1.3 billion tons of food waste globally, while just in the UK, 6.6 million tons of food is wasted. Three-quarters of this were suitable for human consumption.  Food waste is not only a waste of resources but also it is a massive contributor to the climate crisis with global food production creating 30% of the total greenhouse gas emissions.

Action needs to be taken against this problem. Globally one in nine people are going hungry or are classified as undernourished, while a total of 2.37 billion people are said to not have access to safe or nutritious food. Action against hunger says that around the world, more than enough food is produced to feed the entire population.  

While you at home cannot cure world hunger, there are some small changes that can have a massive impact on the way that food waste is treated. For those with gardens, composting your vegetable peelings is a cheap and natural way to create nutrient-rich food from your food waste. Not only that, but everything you compost is being saved from being dumped at landfill sites and research has shown that this could be up to half of your entire rubbish bin as well as any garden waste that you want to add to it.

Compost is the first step towards fighting food waste as it creates a natural slow release of nutrients through its organic matter which helps your soil maintain its structure, moisture levels and keeps your soil’s PH at the correct levels whiles suppressing plant diseases. Compost helps to buffer soils that are acidic and contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, to create perfect plant food.

Most importantly, composting at home saves food from going to landfills. households make up 70% of the UK’s food waste, with an estimated 14% of all food waste being recycled. If the food reaches landfills it will create greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to global warming. WRAP estimates that food waste creates 150 Metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, equating to 30% of the UK’s territorial greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst rotting food at landfills does not release carbon dioxide, it does release methane gas which is said to be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas.  

Some councils offer a food waste collection service, but you will have to check with your separate councils to see whether they do. Currently, Cornwall and Plymouth do not offer food waste collection, but Cornwall is said to be implementing a scheme where the rubbish collection would be fortnightly with the recycling as well as integrating food waste collection on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, the new contract which was supposed to be starting in June this year will now be delayed until 2023. 

Any food waste that is collected by the council or a private company will more than likely go to Anaerobic digestion, this is where food waste and other organic matter is broken down in a sealed reactor by bacteria in the absence of oxygen. This process creates biogas, which can be used to create electricity, heat homes, be processed into fuel for vehicles and refined into renewable natural gas.  The other byproduct it creates is something called digestate which has many beneficial applications such as nutrient rich-fertiliser, creating bioplastics and animal bedding. Diverting food waste to anaerobic digestion can create a source of revenue due to the byproducts and has a positive impact on the climate. 

The issue is that if the council does not decide to collect the food waste, then it will be diverted off to the incinerator. The councils opt to use the incinerator over landfills as they currently do not have any tax on the use while landfill tax has been made high in a bid to stop them being used, also they can create energy from the waste with the Devonport “Energy from Waste Combined Heat and Power Facility” gaining a number of awards including “Best Project”, “Best Waste/Water/Energy Project” and “Best Local Management Team”. 

This incinerator in Devonport was built in 2015 and is said to be the largest project in the UK. The facility uses around 245,000 tons of residual waste from households, commercial and industrial outlets per year to generate electricity and heat. The residual bottom ash, which will be about 20% to 25% of the overall waste treated will be recycled and used for construction and civil engineering purposes.  

Whilst incineration is going to be a necessary part of human life as landfills amassed into a sea of waste, the incinerator is the opposite of this. Instead of brushing our waste under the carpet, so to speak, we are now creating energy from the waste with the residual ash that is created being used in several different projects. Waste piles were getting out of hand with 90% of our waste getting sent to dumped at landfill sites during the ’90s, with recycling initiatives being brought into action in 2003.  

Both landfills and incineration create greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Incinerators are the preferred method of waste disposal now partly due to high taxes on landfills with no taxes on incinerators brought in by the government. This makes incineration the cheapest way to dispose of waste, being cheaper than recycling, Channel 4 Dispatches estimated that 11% of recycling is being incinerated with reports of as much as 45% of recycling being diverted and used to fuel incinerators in some areas. There are 48 incinerators currently built in the country and many more are being built. In 2019 there was a reported 12.6 tons of CO2 emitted by incinerators in the UK, although this does not account for biogenic waste, which is waste of vegetable, animal or microbial origin, but only reports the fossil waste CO2. It is believed that this could be up to half of the CO2 produced.  

The landfill was not a good option for our waste as it posed numerous different hazards to the environment, and while the incinerators do not pose such noticeable dangers, they do create extreme amounts of greenhouse gases. Incineration is a step in the right direction, but recycling and food waste should not be used to fuel them, this should be down to non-recyclable materials only.  

I have been speaking to Danny Langton, the Compliance Manager at Langage Farm, a facility at the forefront of biogenic waste disposal. The farm has won “The Environment and Energy Awards” and “Southwest Green Energy Awards” for its anaerobic digestion plant at the dairy farm. The farm is completely carbon neutral and can produce enough electricity to power up to 500 households. Most importantly it re-uses the food waste which is turned into a liquid called digestate which can be used as an alternative to fertiliser because it has the standard elements required for soil conditioning; Nitrogen, potash and phosphate as well as some other trace elements which can be difficult and expensive to add to the soil such as molybdenum, cadmium, selenium and cobalt as well as some others.

Here he showed me how the plant works.

Some plants, including the one at Langage Farm, produce digestate which has been approved for use at organic farms which can produce a yield of up to four times their usual crop, while a normal farm would expect a yield of two times crop growthThis is extremely beneficial to organic farms due to the restrictions placed on what they can put on their land. This is nutrientrich food for plants as opposed to ash for construction from the incinerator. Not only that but digestate is cheaper than synthetic fertilisers, almost a quarter of the price for the same nutritional value. 

Pictured is grass crop after 20 days of fertiliser use and digestate use 

If councils can get a high recycling rate, then they are doing their job properly, but it is not always down to the councils as the waste collection is contracted to agencies such as Biffa and Veolia. At Langage farm, Danny informed me that about 50% of their waste comes from Biffa and while Plymouth council are the last of the Devon and Cornwall councils to implement food waste collection with Exeter council having started collections in parts of their city on November 4th, or as Danny put it “They seem to be dragging their feet”, but it may not be entirely the council’s fault.  

The councils contract their waste collection to third party companies, which can cost councils a lot of money that they just do not have. Also, there is no saying the companies that secure these contracts are going to run flawlessly, ultimately when we put our recycling and waste, we expect it to be collected and disposed of responsibly but this is not always the case. Biffa has been found to be shipping banned materials to developing countries without any systems in place to prevent the offences from taking place. The 1000-ton shipment of mixed waste was labelled as paper. This has been found to happen on numerous occasions. These revelations show that a revision of the systems in place is necessary for progress to be made, not just in food waste disposal but across the board. 

Meanwhile, councils are reporting that the current waste collection system is working well to reduce the amount of waste that is being sent to landfills across the country. There has been a 5.1% increase of waste thrown away by UK households but the amount sent to landfills have decreased by 7%. Councils have also reported that there has been an increase of 11% of food waste disposal.  

I spoke to Plymouth MP Luke Pollard about his views on food waste collection in Plymouth. 

Luke said “Plymouth’s recycling rate I plateauing or going down ever so slightly. That is because we are not making the progress to getting into behaviours to recycle more.” He said, “Plymouth has been waiting for the government to post its long-awaited guidance on waste and recycling in theory the government were supposed to be publishing guidelines that instead of having the 42 different variations on what we can recycle to try and have a single rate.”  

Unfortunately, it does not look like there are plans in place for Plymouth for the immediate future. Luke continued “This is where we need a proper plan and the absence of a plan mean we have people waiting for the councils to do something when they are not going to be doing it and the councils waiting on the government.” So, for the time being, Plymouth is going to have to put their food waste in the incinerator but not all is lost. The councils are moving on this subject and I believe if the infrastructure is there, they will use it. 

Mr Pollard stated “If we have the ability to provide a large scale anaerobic digestor, for example, we are looking at having one of those projects over in the east of Plymouth in the Langage energy park. I think that could provide more to go into and to reduce the food miles of our food waste.” This is important Danny at Langage farm informed me that they were running at full capacity and we’re sending some of their collected waste to be used at another digestor, presumably Exeter. “It’s going to cost some money and the council doesn’t really have any money.” This is another subject entirely, the councils are using the incinerator because it yields energy from waste, but it also saves a lot of money on landfill tax and is the cost-effective solution. While there is a massive green movement taking place the solution has to be cost-effective and outweigh the investment it must take to start these projects. 

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