Thousands of tons of food are being needlessly buried or burned as councils across the UK fail to meet recommendations on how to deal with biodegradable waste. An Independent on Sunday survey of local authorities has revealed that while the vast majority collect garden waste for composting, less than half pick up food waste separately from general household rubbish.
As a result, food waste that could be used for composting or to generate power is being sent for landfill or incineration. But there is growing opposition to the spread of a new generation of incinerators across the UK. More than 80 sites have been earmarked as part of a so-called "dash for ash", which could see the amount of household waste that is burnt more than double.
Many councils also warn that public sector cutbacks mean they can no longer afford to implement rubbish separation and collection plans.
UK households throw away enough food each year to fill 10 Wembley stadiums, according to Wrap, the government-funded waste reduction adviser. Yet only 173 of 380 councils who responded to the survey offer any form of kerbside food collection. While all councils in Wales collect food separately, other UK countries are lagging behind.
EU guidelines require countries to establish prevention – reducing the amount of rubbish from the outset – as a top priority in waste management. After that, priorities include preparing material for reuse or other recovery (such as energy recovery); and, lastly, disposal (such as landfill). Wrap suggests UK households throw away around 8.3 million tons of food and drink – worth £12bn – every year.
Michael Warhurst, of Friends of the Earth, said: "We would urge the Government to fully enforce the hierarchy so that councils have to recycle food waste. If the Government is serious about being the greenest ever it should be doing this rather than having the European Parliament constantly going on about different collection methods."
An IoS survey found that all 22 Welsh councils offer a separate food or combined food and garden waste collection. About 60 per cent of homes have access to food waste services and the Welsh Assembly has committed £34m between 2009 and 2011 to extend collections to every household.
Jane Davidson, the Assembly's environment minister, said waste prevention and home composting were first steps, but that the country wanted to ensure that thrown-away rubbish is utilised as far as possible. "This is a classic invest/save argument. The regulations are tightening and those authorities ahead of the game put themselves in a better position," she said. It is "short-sighted" to make cuts in the short term, with councils making decisions for 25 years in the future when deciding about waste.
However, some local councils argue that the cost of introducing food collections is prohibitive. A spokesman for East Lothian, where food constitutes 10 per cent of recyclable waste, estimates it would cost about £1m per year to introduce a food waste collection for its 40,000 households.
The IoS survey found just over a third of Scotland's 32 councils offer food waste collections, including small-scale trials. A Scottish government spokesman said it was consulting on measures, including banning food from landfill, which would complement work by the government-funded body, Zero Waste Scotland, to collect food waste, develop composting and anaerobic digestion facilities and develop markets for recycled material.
In Northern Ireland, 65 per cent of its 26 councils offer food recycling and officials expect this to increase. The Northern Ireland Executive's environment department last year made £5m available to councils to promote the development of recycling and composting infrastructure, with successful bids from 16 projects so far.
A spokesman said the department was also developing "higher aspirational targets" in excess of the EU directive commitment of recycling 50 per cent of household waste by 2020. In November, Wales became the first UK country to introduce statutory recycling and composting targets for local authorities. It aims to recycle 70 per cent of waste by 2025.
Only 41 per cent of the 300 English councils responding to the survey collect food separately. The research, conducted between last August and November, revealed huge disparities. For example, while two-thirds of eastern England's councils have food collections, none in the North-east do. Within eastern England, all Hertfordshire councils boast kerbside food recycling schemes, but only around a half in neighbouring Essex provide a similar service.
Some councils collect organic material separately but fail to compost it. Herefordshire sends garden waste collected through its kerbside scheme to landfill. However, garden waste taken to household waste sites is composted by a different contractor. A council spokeswoman said it was not easy to change long contracts.
The Isle of Wight sends separately collected food waste to its gasification plant to generate energy, following the closure of its contractor's in-vessel composting facility in 2009. A spokeswoman said it maintained the separate collection to record tonnage data and because it would be costly to withdraw the service and then have to reintroduce it should other facilities become available.
Most the councils surveyed treat separated food waste via a process called in-vessel composting. But, a Wrap report last year showed that anaerobic digestion – a source of 100 per cent renewable energy – is the preferable option for dealing with food waste. The process produces a methane-rich biogas that can generate heat and power, plus a soil improver. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), there are 37 such plants in the UK, with another 60 planned. It suggests digesting one ton of food waste rather than sending it to landfill cuts greenhouse gas emissions and saves up to one ton of CO2 equivalent.
Lincolnshire County Council, which recycles just under 52 per cent of its rubbish, recently signed a 25-year contract to send "non-recyclable waste" – including food – to a £145m energy-from-waste facility at North Hykeham from mid-2013. Ian Taylor, waste operations team leader, said the main drawback of anaerobic digestion was that it dealt only with food, and Lincolnshire faced a bigger problem with other non-recyclable waste ahead of EU fines for excess landfilling and rising landfill tax. Its seven district councils would also need to make investments "beyond their means" to create separate food collection systems, he added.
The coalition has pledged to increase anaerobic digestion, with Defra due to publish an action plan this year.