December 9th, 2011

Commercial food waste collection – has the time finally come?

4 minute read

by Antony Quinn


Food waste – is it the final piece of the waste hierarchy puzzle? I worked in the waste industry for a number of years and that the main material going to landfill unnecessarily was food – but I couldn’t see a profitable way to avoid it.

My interest in this subject was piqued anew when I saw that a local waste company, Fresh Start, now has a Manchester-based food waste collection scheme.  At the same time, a WRAP-published report on the composition of waste disposed of by the hospitality industry stated that 600,000 tonnes of food was thrown away in 2009.


We’ve come a long way, baby

Efforts to tackle food waste have quite a chequered history. In 2006, WRAP funded several trials to investigate the feasibility of collections from SMEs. In one, Moray Waste Busters offered a free food waste collection service to 5 SMEs, as they felt the market would not bear a charge. For the first stage they used the best small scale composters available, followed by wormeries in the second stage. They did not allow any meat in the waste, and so had to check it to ensure decontamination.

The following year WRAP funded a second round of collection trials. This time, there was a food waste collection by Bexley Council. Different processing technology was used – in-vessel composters that allowed meat to be included. However, the council was only able to run the service by piggy-backing it on their domestic food waste collections, and didn’t feel they could charge above cost price. Clearly, food waste still wasn’t a profitable activity. Their intention was to collect from 45 businesses, but only 27 came on board.

In 2008, WRAP funded another food waste collection trial, this time  by Allmead. Again, the service wasn’t profitable enough and stopped once the funding ended. Again, a small number of businesses were involved – only 10 – and the service cost more than residual waste collections.


Travelling without moving

The problem of recruitment is one that has occurred again and again over the years. Those organisations that process food waste as their core business have tended to struggle to recruit businesses to collect from. Rotters in Liverpool tried to promote food waste collections around 2008, but looking at their site today there is now very little mention of it. Similarly, despite a three year project in Lewes to set up a food waste collection scheme, it no longer operates.

It is not only small community sector waste organisations that have found it difficult. In 2008, TEG launched a food waste collection service. Needless to say, this too is no longer running.

Apparently, although lots of people agreed food waste collection was a good idea, nobody could get it to stack up. And the problem wasn’t the gate fee, it was logistics.


Movin’ right along

Now a new batch of hopefuls with rather different origins have decided to enter the fray. Simply Waste Solutions is a good example. They started out doing waste collections, and have latterly expanded the range of materials they collect to include food waste.

A new kid on the block is Forge Recycling. Established with help from CO2Sense, they aim to emphasise food waste collections in their wider service. Their vehicle allows them to collect food waste at the same time as, but in a separate container from, other waste streams. Meanwhile, Wastewise has developed from a landfill operator to become not only a reprocessor with a number of different facilities, but also a collector.

The common thead is that food waste is not these companies core business. This reflects how businesses view ethical disposal of food – even for a restaurant, diverting it from landfill is only an added extra until either legislation or disposal costs change the landscape. The Labour government’s interest in a landfill ban for food waste has not been followed up by the coalition. And to make food waste collections financially attractive entails efficient waste collections.

Even where it makes financial sense to use a local food composting scheme, many nationwide companies want standardised practice across branches. This could be where Vegware’s new service, which assists with finding a waste food collection anywhere in the country, comes into play. I suspect it will be used by waste brokers to offer a joined up food waste collection.

Of the 600,000 tonnes of food WRAP’s 2009 report found to be wasted, 400,000 tonnes could have been eaten! In this context it would be almost unethical to not to mention Fareshare, who work tirelessly to divert food waste away from landfill and onto people’s plates. However, it survives as a charity, which shows how difficult it is to make the food waste numbers add up.

So while it is good to see these new businesses enter the field, the history of food waste collection is littered with failed attempts. I would be interested to hear of other food waste collectors, or of people’s experience in this area – do you think the time has come when commercial food waste collectors can prosper?


Antony Quinn

A version of this article originally appeared on the blog.

Antony Quinn


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James Fulford
James Fulford

Antony, thanks for the post. Welcome! Has the time come when commercial food waste collectors can flourish? Definitely. For larger producers the cost of disposal drives take up of this service more than efficient low cost collections. Industrial food wastes are increasingly being identified and targeted by AD investors and lower down the food chain (!) there are retailers like sainsburys and waitrose who have committed to AD. caterers and restaurants as well with whitbread and weatherspoon both rolling out these types of service. The post is particularly focussed at the SME end of the market and the economics here… Read more »