More than 27 million Britons are sending their uneaten household food to environmentally damaging landfill sites or incinerators because councils are failing to collect the waste separately.
A Mail on Sunday investigation revealed that every year more than five million tons of food discarded in UK homes is left to rot, poured down the drain, or burnt – producing harmful greenhouse gases.
Official figures suggest that if every council in Britain offered a separate food waste collection, it would have the same environmental impact as removing 300,000 cars from the road every year.
A Mail on Sunday investigation revealed that every year more than five million tons of food discarded in UK homes is left to rot, poured down the drain, or burnt – producing harmful greenhouse gases
Unused food can be converted into electricity via a process called anaerobic digestion (AD).
Experts say 40,000 tons of food waste can be converted into enough electricity to power up to 3,000 homes. It can also be used as fertiliser, which can in turn be used to grow more food.
But nearly half of councils still do not collect household food separately – making it impossible to recycle the waste in these ways.
British households bin more than 6.6 million tons of food every year, of which 4.5 million tons are edible.
The Mail on Sunday is calling on the nation to cut its waste by 30 per cent as part of our War On Food Waste campaign.
But we are also urging local authorities to play their part by processing this waste and speeding up the introduction of a separate weekly food waste collection ahead of the Government’s 2023 deadline.
The Mail on Sunday is calling on the nation to cut its waste by 30 per cent as part of our War On Food Waste campaign
Our investigation found:
- Four in every ten local councils across the country fail to offer households a separate food waste collection.
- More than 80 per cent of food discarded in homes – 5.3 million tons – goes to landfill or is incinerated, while only 12 per cent – 780,000 tons – is recycled by councils in an environmentally friendly way.
- Nearly a quarter of councils that collect food waste separately offer only a fortnightly collection, leading to overflowing bins of rotting food that attract rats.
- Councils that claim offering a separate food waste scheme is too expensive have been accused of squandering money elsewhere.
Last night, Friends Of The Earth campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: ‘It’s hard to believe that in 2021, so many people are still without access to council food waste collections.
Too often food is being binned, ending up in landfill or the incinerator. The land, water and energy used to produce then dispose of uneaten food is eye-watering.
‘That’s why the Government should ensure parity across all local authority services for doorstep collections, or enable easy-to-access community compost bins instead.’
Figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that if all local authorities provided separate food waste collection, the amount of food waste collected would increase by 1.35 million tons by 2029.
This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 1.25 million tons a year – the same positive impact on the environment as removing 300,000 cars from the roads.
Under the Government’s Environment Bill, every English council will be required to collect food separately every week by 2023. Our investigation found that 156 councils – 41 per cent – fail to offer this service. As a result, more than 3 million tons – 45 per cent – of household food waste is incinerated every year alongside other waste produced in the home.
Incinerators are often seen as a green solution because they combust waste and in the process recover heat to produce energy through steam. But according to the charity Zero Waste Europe, incinerators actually emit more carbon dioxide than coal, natural gas, or oil-fired power plants.
Another 800,000 tons of household food waste is tossed on to landfill sites every year where it rots and produces methane.
Methane emissions are considered 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Another 1.5 million tons of household food waste disappears down the sewer every year. Only 19 per cent of household food waste is recycled either by anaerobic digestion or home composting – the most environmentally friendly ways of handling it.
Claire Shrewsbury, of food charity The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), said: ‘Preventing food from becoming wasted is the most important thing we can all do, but however careful we are, some waste can occur.
‘Having access to a food waste collection is a fantastic way to ensure that this material is captured and properly treated.
‘Today technologies such as anaerobic digestion and in-vessel composting turn our food waste into valuable compost, and energy to heat our homes. The alternative is to let food rot in landfill where methane gas is generated or incinerated, losing this beneficial organic matter for ever.’
Among the councils not offering a separate food waste collection is Wakefield Council, which recently complained that introducing food waste bins by 2023 would be a ‘burden’ and the costs would be ‘significant’. The council was in the headlines last year after it emerged that four of its bosses were on salaries of more than £100,000.
A spokesman for the council said: ‘Although we do collect food waste in the same bin as the general rubbish, we recover the food waste and generate energy from its breakdown, rather than squandering this resource or landfilling it.’
Liverpool City Council, which has also failed to implement the scheme, warned of ‘a significant cost in terms of putting the infrastructure in place’.
A recent report found that as much as £100 million of public money could have been squandered by the ‘dysfunctional’ council.
David Renard, of the Local Government Association, said: ‘The LGA supports the ambition for an increase in recycling rates and the local government sector is ready to take on the challenge of improving recycling levels and the overall waste service it provides to its residents.’
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow added: ‘Our proposed weekly collections will ensure millions of tons of food waste are saved from going to landfill or incineration.
‘But before we reach for the food waste caddy, we all need to think about how not to waste good food.’
Rotten tomatoes? They can power your home
Anaerobic digestion is by no means a silver bullet for the problem of food waste, but experts agree that the process is more eco-friendly than depositing food waste on landfill or incinerating it.
The process is central to the Government’s plan to prevent all food waste going to landfill by 2030 – an official 2018 report hailed the method as ‘the best environmental outcome for food waste that cannot be prevented’.
When your local council collects the contents of your food bin, the scraps are taken to an anaerobic digestion plant to be recycled. Food waste, such as rotten tomatoes and peelings, is emptied out on to a big conveyor belt and any non-recyclable items are taken out. From here, the food waste goes into an anaerobic digestion tank.
Inside the tank, the food waste is mixed together and tiny microbes break it down to create the gas methane.
However, rather than escaping into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change – as it does when food rots in landfill – the methane is converted into biogas, a clean energy source. This renewable energy can then be used as heat or electricity to power homes and household appliances.
Food waste, such as rotten tomatoes and peelings, is emptied out on to a big conveyor belt and any non-recyclable items are taken out
The electricity generated provides the power needed for the plant, while the majority is sent to the National Grid.
Since 2011, the number of anaerobic digesters in the UK has grown from 63 to more than 600. The electricity produced increased three-fold between 2013 and 2017.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has estimated that UK food waste sent to anaerobic digesters produces 1,000 Gigawatt hours (GWh), enough to power a million homes for over one month.
The process also produces a fertiliser for soil, which can be used to grow more food.
But some campaigners say that generous subsidies offered to the industry discourage preferable options such as not wasting food at all.
Others are concerned that farmers who grow crops specifically for AD, such as maize and grass, are diverting agricultural land that could be used to grow actual food.
No-waste village brought together by free food from pioneer Ellen’s community fridge
By Jonathan Bucks
On a simple allotment in the Garden of England, Ellen Neville’s strawberry plants are beginning to bear fruit.
Her beehive buzzes with activity while the crimson red rhubarb shines in the brilliant Kent sunshine.
Most of the bounty will be eaten by the 43-year-old and her daughters Rowan, 11, and Farah, 13. But any surplus will go to feed her neighbours after Ellen spearheaded a local Community Fridge scheme.
It’s part of a growing trend whereby local residents and firms donate food that would otherwise have been binned for others to take. In exchange for her fruit and honey, Ellen will then help herself to surplus bread from the local supermarket and meat from the butcher.
On a simple allotment in the Garden of England, Ellen Neville’s strawberry plants are beginning to bear fruit
She told The Mail on Sunday how the fridge – set up outside a high street charity shop – had now become integral to life in the chocolate box village of Hawkhurst, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent.
‘Often we’ll have a queue here first thing in the morning, with mums and dads on their way home after the school run,’ Ellen said. ‘The fridge has become the beating heart of the community, particularly during lockdown when people felt lonely and the fridge gave them a chance to chat to others.
‘There were some misconceptions at the start that the fridge is for people who aren’t so well off. But the truth is it’s for everyone who cares about not wasting food.’
Since the first fridge was trialled in 2016 by the charity Hubbub, community fridges have redistributed 3,145 tons of surplus food every year that would otherwise have gone to waste.
There are now around 150 in the UK. They are registered as food businesses and adhere to hygiene rules and inspections from health officers. The scheme even has the royal seal of approval with Prince Charles hailing the initiative when he opened the 100th UK project in Ayrshire, Scotland, last year.
In Hawkhurst, a team of volunteers open up the fridge every day and see in large donations of surplus food from supermarkets. The ethos is that it is free food without stigma for everyone, regardless of background or income.
Ellen grew up on a smallholding in the East Sussex village of Bodiam while her family has farmed land locally for the past 35 years.
‘My parents kept goats when I was a child so we always had goat’s milk and never let a drop go to waste,’ she said.
‘I wouldn’t say we were a poor family but we understood the importance of food and we made it go a long way.’
Ellen estimates that 300 people a month use the fridge and it helps save around 2.5 tons of food from the bin every month.
Even gone-off food is recycled as chicken feed and free seeds are handed out to encourage locals to grow their own. As well as surplus bread and pastries, often given by supermarkets Co-op and Waitrose, fresh fruit and veg, eggs and meat are also left.
Mandy Jeffrey, a dental nurse and mother-of-one, said she hadn’t had to buy bread for six months because of the scheme. ‘It’s not just saved me hundreds of pounds but has given me an opportunity to meet other people who live round here and feel like I’m helping the environment. It’s become a real focal point of the village.’
Among the dozen or so volunteers who help Ellen keep the fridge open between 9.30am and 4pm seven days a week is Ken Cooper. The retired civil servant, 66, arrives most mornings with a trolley full of surplus bread from Waitrose.
He said: ‘I drop off the grandchildren at school and then head over. I grew up in East Ham as one of five and money was very tight so we never wasted anything.’
Alison Ure, one of the first volunteers to sign up, arrives first most mornings to open up where she is often greeted by a queue.
Alison said she woke up to the climate change impact of food waste after studying a degree in environmental sciences.
‘I just want to do my bit to help,’ she said.