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Food waste segregation can boost budgets and brands

18 June 2018

Nigel Lee explains how strategies for food waste can be used to reduce overheads and help ensure brand security. 

As the largest industry in the UK it is not surprising that it is also the greatest producer of food waste after individual households. While much is being done to improve supply chains, reduce waste and find sustainable routes for edible food, an element of unavoidable food waste will always remain.

With the right approach, the benefits of responsible disposal can extend beyond sustainability goals, to impact across all areas of the business. Food waste can deliver its true environmental potential, while producers safeguard their operations from future legislation; savings will improve and, crucially, brand security will be guaranteed.

In recent years, waste generated during manufacturing has received a great deal of scrutiny. For every two tonnes of food consumed, another is wasted and, in the current environment there is no excuse for wasteful practices in the name of profit. The voluntary Courtauld Agreement has laid out its goals for 2025, and many leading businesses have signed up to the principles. Redistribution for human consumption and segregation for animal feed are growing but, sadly, residual food waste is still viewed by many as a necessary evil rather than an opportunity.

Supply chains are critical for food processors. Every care is taken to ensure that products are of the highest quality and are obtained from reputable, reliable sources. Product recalls are expensive and damaging to brands, so businesses do their best to ensure that the final product is safe and fit for consumption. This approach to risk focuses on the profit-making front end of the business while the back end – waste disposal – which does not generate income, is often considered as less of a priority.

Waste disposal opportunities
Analysis shows that this is a major oversight – waste disposal can offer a real chance to deliver lower costs while meeting corporate and social responsibilities, and sustainability KPIs. In addition, the potential danger to brand reputation from end of life products falling into the wrong hands is just as great as the risk posed via products fresh off the conveyor.

Separate food waste collections are on the rise, but the standard offering is still a mixed waste, total waste management solution. Unless customers create greater demand for segregated waste streams, this is unlikely to change. Mixed waste systems might segregate paper, but all other waste – from manufacturing waste to staff lunch wrappers – is collected in one bin or skip. On the surface, this seems like the easiest, and cheapest option, but closer inspection reveals a different story.

Unless segregated at source, food waste is most likely to be sent to an energy from waste plant, which burns mixed waste to produce energy; alternatively, it is destined for landfill. Environmentally, this is not the best option. Landfill sits at the bottom of the waste hierarchy and food waste, which decomposes to produce the greenhouse gas methane, is one of the most harmful materials to send to landfill. Methane disperses more quickly than its fellow greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, but it is 84 times more potent in the first two decades after its release.

Legislation may well play its part in the future and already in Scotland, food waste is collected separately, and processed to produce renewable energy or compost. Wales is following suit, and the policy is under scrutiny in England.

Mixed waste collections are the least secure in terms of brand security. As part of animal feed specialist AB Agri, Amur applies the same data trail requirements and pre-acceptance tests to food waste as it employs to material destined for animal feed, but total waste management practices vary enormously. Picking the wrong contractor can reduce costs for a business in the short-term, but the longer-term effect on brand values can be significant if the waste is not disposed of correctly. Segregation of food waste is a key tool in ensuring that this scenario is stamped out.

For waste management firms, mixed waste collections help to reduce costs. Collections are cheaper, and there is no need for large investment in plants such as anaerobic digesters (ADs) which process the waste effectively to generate biogas. However, these savings are rarely passed on to customers.

Landfill Tax rises
From April 2018, Landfill Tax rose to £88.95 per tonne, so removing as much waste (and particularly heavy waste such as food materials) from landfill makes sound economic sense. Equally, where food waste is suitable for animal feed, the producer should benefit either from a cost saving or, possibly, a source of income depending on the nutritional value of the waste. Residual food waste (which is not suitable for human consumption or animal feed) has an enormous potential to generate valuable renewable energy. However, the established systems used for collection mean that, often, it is not captured.

Gas produced from an AD can be burnt to make electricity in a combined heat and power plant, upgraded and injected into the National Grid, or used as fuel for specially adapted vehicles. Producing optimum levels of gas is, however, not as easy as it seems. A great deal of expertise is needed to maintain the right balance in nutrition and feeding – frequent changes in diet upset the fragile biology. Due to the shortage of segregated collections, feedstocks are in short supply, which means operators have little choice in feedstocks and often risk compromising the biology of the plant.

The cost of managing residual food waste effectively is often forgotten. Unlike the more lucrative animal feed route, it requires serious investment – as an example, building an AD plant can cost over £3 million per megawatt of thermal energy produced. However, the advantages of separate food waste collections are felt throughout the entire supply chain. Food processors benefit from lower disposal costs and peace of mind; while food waste treated at a well-run facility helps to fuel the UK’s shift to greater energy security through renewable technologies.

Nigel Lee is general manager at Amur.

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