by Peter Jones7 minute read
The publication of the Environment Bill at last gives us a clear picture of the source separation requirements that are likely to apply to food waste in England and Northern Ireland from 2023. If the rules mean what they appear to, they usher in a transformation of the composting and AD market, whose consequences are yet to be fully recognised.
When I last wrote about the emerging policies on organics recycling, I focused on the inconsistent language used about the new source separation rules. They had been described rather differently in the 2019 consultation on waste collection than in the 2018 consultation, and it wasn’t clear what impact a practicability-based exception to the requirement to source separate might have.
S.52 of the Environment Bill defines the source separation requirements regarding both household and commercial waste, which are closely aligned to the proposals in the 2019 consultation.
Under the new rules, generally speaking:
- Recyclable waste (including food waste and – for households – garden waste) must be collected separately from other household waste.
- Recyclable waste must be collected for recycling or composting.
- Recyclable waste in each recyclable waste stream must be collected separately.
However, point 3 above does not apply when source separation isn’t necessary or practicable:
Recyclable… waste in two or more recyclable waste streams may be collected together where—
(a) it is not technically or economically practicable to collect recyclable… waste in those recyclable waste streams separately, or
(b) collecting recyclable… waste in those recyclable waste streams separately has no significant environmental benefit (having regard to the overall environmental impact of collecting it separately and of collecting it together).
Even where this is the case, though, organic wastes must still be collected separately from other wastes. The exception above only concerns whether food waste and garden waste can be collected as a single mixed stream.
Exempt from exemption
The Bill allows ministers to make exemptions to the requirement to collect each stream separately. However, that power does not affect the requirement to separate food waste from non-recyclable waste, and can only be exercised where the minister is satisfied that doing so “will not significantly reduce the potential for recyclable household waste… to be recycled or composted”.
Ministers also have a power to amend the requirement,
“to make provision about the extent to which recyclable household waste… in any of those waste streams may or may not be collected together with recyclable household waste… in another recyclable waste stream.”
Again, this power only relates to the requirement to separate food waste from other organics, and not the requirement to separate it from residual waste.
The only other power ministers have to adjust the proposed rules is through statutory guidance. Again, there is a specific power to address “the circumstances in which it may not be technically or economically practicable to collect recyclable household waste… separately”, but practicability relates only to the separation of recyclable streams from one another, and so ministers don’t seem able to give guidance on where it may not be feasible to separate food waste at all.
Bill of goods?
This is quite encouraging. There is no obvious avenue by which to exclude classes of households (e.g. flats) or businesses from the requirement to source separate, which might undermine the feasibility of reaching the recycling targets. However, this exposition of the Bill’s contents is a preamble to setting out its (perhaps) unforeseen consequences.
For example, the law seems not to allow food waste to be collected in a disposable plastic or paper liner. This would be unfortunate, as various WRAP and Defra studies have found that supplying liners tends to result in greater public participation – although there is a good case for moving toward compostable liners to minimise plastic particles in digestate.
The issue is that food waste must be collected separately from all other waste – but a liner is not food waste. One possible response is that liners aren’t waste, but the Government’s guidance on the definition of waste doesn’t support that. The guidance’s starting point is whether the holder has an “intention to discard the item”. Putting an item out for waste collection is a pretty clear sign of this intent! Another factor is whether the item has been “consigned to an operation which is a common way of disposing of or recovering waste,” which will be true of a food waste liner that enters the recycling stream.
Perhaps there’s an argument to be made based on the “characteristics of the substance or object” – but I see no special characteristics of a liner that would exempt it from being waste. And if it is waste, it must be kept separate from food.
If this argument applies to liners, it applies even more clearly to compostable plastic packaging. At the moment, few if any food waste collection systems are set up to also accept compostable packaging. Generally, it has to be collected separately if it is going to be composted. The new legislation would appear to require that this separation continues: even if a system could be designed that allowed for food waste and compostable plastics to be collected together, it would breach the source separation requirements. The argument would also seem to apply to single use sacks used for dry recycling.
So, the new requirement to source separate is strict, and there seems no way to relax it through regulations or guidance. There seems to be an opportunity here to improve the drafting to avoid unintended consequences: in particular, the law should ensure that compostable food caddy liners (including “improvised” linings, like newspaper) are able to be used.
Assuming that the source separation rules are enforced, what will it mean for the organics recycling system? A huge increase in the amount of separately collected food would be a boon to a healthy organics industry, but in a recent presentation, David Newman gave a pretty stark assessment of its current situation:
- Your feedstocks are a mess
- Your gate fees are near to zero
- Your outputs are worthless
- Your business model is unsustainable because it races to the lowest common denominator
It’s easy to understand how the industry reached this point: in order to attract food waste, it needed to offer convenient services, where collection and treatment would be cost competitive with disposal via residual waste. If commercial customers wanted to present food waste still in its packaging – no problem, we can install depackaging equipment. If that meant there were plastic fragments in the output, it wasn’t a problem so long as land could be found on which it could be spread.
The introduction of a requirement to source separate food waste completely changes the dynamic. It will no longer be about using price to lure waste out of the residual stream. Rather, the driver will be legislative (provided that enforcement is up to the job).
The new source separation rules should mean that it is no longer acceptable for packaged food to be presented for collection, removing the need for depackaging at the reprocesssor’s end. A greater emphasis on quality inputs should also mean that there can be a change of focus towards producing high quality digestate and compost that has real agricultural value.
Further, it seems unlikely that the next generation of AD plants will be supported by renewable energy subsidies to the same extent as they have been in the past. Meanwhile, competition for feedstock will be less cutthroat than in recent years. These factors seem likely to combine to increase the cost of anaerobic digestion and composting to well above its current level.
So, while Defra might expect that the main impact of the source separation policy will be on the councils and businesses that don’t currently separate food waste, it may actually have a substantial impact on gate fees across the board. That opens up the question of whether the government’s commitment under the “new burdens doctrine” to fund the local authorities impacted by its new policy will extend to those affected by increased gate fees. If not, the potential unfairness in the treatment of authorities that have already spent money on food waste collections, which I highlighted in my previous blog, will be exacerbated.
While the requirement to source separate food waste is certainly to be welcomed, it is extremely important that Defra, local authorities, waste producers and the food waste management industry rapidly come to grips with the fundamental change this will bring. Otherwise, we risk seeing a policy that is not properly designed to bring about the changes we should want to see: a huge increase in the share of food waste that is treated, and a big improvement in the quality of the resulting outputs, helping to return organic matter to our soils, and sequestering carbon in the process.
Featured image: MPCA Photos (CC BY-NC 2.0), via Flickr.