Food Waste Collection in the UK: An interview with Bruce Bratley of First Mile

Food Waste Collection in the UK: An interview with Bruce Bratley of First Mile

Therese Coffey MP, the UK Waste Minister, appeared before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last week to discuss food waste, reaffirming that the Government has effectively ruled out legislation to require collection of food waste in the UK. Renewable energy trade associations such as the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association (ADBA) and the Renewable Energy Association (REA) have been calling for food waste collection for many years as food waste can be easily used for anaerobic digestion and energy generation. The REA in particular argue that if all the UK's domestic food waste was processed by AD, it would generate enough electricity for 350,000 households while ADBA believes food waste fed through AD could meet up to 40 percent of the UK target for renewable heat production by 2020. 

Unfortunately, it seems thus far that the conversation around this issue has been very much around household food waste collection and not collection of food waste from businesses. REM talked to Bruce Bratley, CEO and founder of London recycling company First Mile, to find out how the company is addressing this problem and helping to shift the dialogue in favour of businesses alongside households.

How much food waste is generated in Britain, both from residential sources and businesses?

The company is in its 13th year and I founded it. We set it up to serve the city centre businesses and we describe it as serving site constrained businesses but it’s usually SME businesses. We do serve big companies but with multiple locations. Businesses in city centres experience a huge amount of pain because they don’t have daily collections. The traditional waste industry wants to come weekly or fortnightly, collecting a large bin. These businesses don’t have space for a bin. Councils who provide commercial collections tend to treat the small businesses like households and don’t bother turning up on a regular basis either. Until First Mile was set up these business were not really being served because the private sector and the councils were just deeming them to be not worth it because they’ve got relatively small volumes of waste.

We’ve now got 16,000 customers. They get daily collections generally, some of them have weekly collections, and we offer three main services which is a mixed recycling service, a general waste service and a food recycling service. We’re the only business in London to provide a daily food waste collection service throughout the M25. There’s a lot of people doing it weekly or fortnightly but we provide a daily service and my view is if it’s not easy, no-one’s going to do it and the way to get recycling rates up is to provide an easy service that’s understandable, accessible and simple to use. We’ve grown very quickly on the back of it and customers love the service, we get great feedback from them. We get quite high recycling rates from them of about 65 percent which, by my reckoning, is about 20 percent of any of the other business-to-business recyclers.

Can you give me an idea of the scale of the problem with food waste?

From a business perspective, talking about it within the context of London first, in terms of our own customer base, we’ve only got 3 percent of the tonnage we’re collecting that is food waste recycling. That probably represents about 2 percent of our customers, so we have a very low collection rate. We’ve been doing food waste collection for about 3 years on a daily basis. I don’t know what the figure is in London but across the UK there’s about half a million tonnes of food waste produced per annum by the business sector. A lot of the Courtauld commitment is focused on the household sector, and that’s very important but the business sector has been ignored really. There are 3 million businesses in the UK, so for every 10 households, there’s a business, and there’s about 26 million households. One in ten households has a business associated with it as well, therefore it’s 10 percent of the units that produce food waste are businesses and they’re being ignored. People think that if you have food waste then you must have a kitchen to prepare food, but nearly every business in the land has food waste because they have a small canteen or a small office area that have teabags, coffee machines, sandwiches, soup, things left there from lunch, and so on. So they’re all producing food waste. That’s just the office and retail side of it. When you get into the big food producers and manufacturers, obviously they have food waste and retailers have food they’re getting rid of. So there is a huge amount of potential in the business sector which is where our interest lies. There’s been an increase in food waste recycling but this has seemingly been a bit of a blind side with the Government on anything to do with businesses and recycling, particularly food waste.

Where does all this food waste actually go?

It depends on which part of the country you are in. In London there is very little landfill because they’ve all been closed and replaced by either incineration or export as RDF (Refuse Derived Fuel), which will either go to landfill in other parts of the country, RDF or mass-burn incinerators. That in itself is not terrible, because at least it’s being incinerated and some of the calorific value is being released properly as it should. Arguably, you could say that if it goes to landfill it will invariably come out as methane and if you have methane capture then you are getting some of the benefit back from the food, but by far the best way of capturing the calorific value of the food is to feed it through an anaerobic digestion facility. That’s where all the food waste we collect goes to.

How much of the country’s food waste is going into anaerobic digestion?

[Unfortunately Bruce couldn’t answer this exactly, but according to the UK’s Official Information Portal on Anaerobic Digestion 16-18 million tonnes of food waste (from households and industry) is suitable for treatment by AD. At present there are currently around 100 non-water industry anaerobic digesters in the UK producing bioenergy with many more currently in the planning stage of development - See map below]

What is your ultimate aim?

Well the issue is that there is a huge amount of focus at the moment on the media campaign with the celebrity chefs trying to reduce the amount of food waste that the UK produces in the first place. That’s absolutely fantastic and changing the use by/sell by dates on produce etc is really important, getting control of portion and size is important, but at the end of the day we are still going to end up with food waste that has to be appropriately managed. As a recycling company, we want to make sure that we’re not losing sight of that. Some councils working under budgetary constraints are starting to withdraw from services such as food waste because they can’t get the traction with their customers.

The problem at the moment in the supply chain isn’t processing capacity because we have a load of suppliers that need facilities. What we’re struggling to get right is the collection. It’s really a supply chain problem that, with a little bit more education, people could be more willing to separate their food waste for recycling, but we just don’t have the collection infrastructure for households or businesses to get their food waste into anaerobic digestion facilities to be recycled appropriately. I think at the moment there is a risk that we keep focusing on reduction, which has to be the priority, but it needs to be a balanced argument because we’ll never get rid of food waste completely.

What would you say the main challenges are to increasing the collection of the food waste?

I think there’s the challenge of getting people to think about separating the food waste. It exists but of course it’s mixed in with their general waste and having the food waste separate doesn’t mean you have food waste that you didn’t have before it’s just more physical. I think the difficulty is that people are storing it incorrectly and so it starts to rot and it starts to smell and it’s not being collected on a regular enough basis. That causes problems because it attracts vermin and it starts to decompose, smell and create food flies etc, so the challenge is getting people to realise that you can store food waste without it being a nuisance and getting it collected on a regular basis and efficiently and getting that in the supply chain.

Theresa Coffey, the Waste Minister, doesn’t seem to be too keen on introducing legislation requiring food waste collection. What’s your view on that?

I think mostly she’s talking about it in terms of the household waste collection. We have the legislation already so she’s against introducing more legislation requiring collection of household waste. I think this is where it’s all a bit misguided. The Courtauld Agreement is a voluntary agreement mainly with retailers to reduce the amount of food waste. Their argument is that we can reduce food waste without any more legislation requiring them to do so and that may or may not be the case. They seem to be making significant steps forward with the Courtauld Agreement to avoid more legislation but the Environment Agency don’t have the resources to enforce it, therefore people don’t necessarily do what they should in terms of source separation into recyclable materials. I think it will be a real challenge to get to 25 percent reduction in food waste by 2025 but I can see why there is a reluctance, particularly when we are leaving the EU, to introduce more legislation when we are making steps forward.

We have to get people to acquiesce with regard to household food waste and work with industry to reduce the food waste being generated and legislation won’t necessarily work to do that. In terms of the voluntary code, I think Theresa’s looking primarily at supermarkets and she needs to look across the business spectrum because there are many businesses that could influence the amount of food waste that we produce as a nation. We do seem to be taking a very narrow approach to the Courtauld Agreement.

Looking ahead, where do you think things will be in say five years’ time?

I think in five years’ time we’ll have made some significant steps forward, we’ll have made sell-by and use-by dates more sensible and the public will understand that your food doesn’t go off at midnight. Supermarkets will also be a bit more careful about how they present food waste for the public, but other than that, I think we are going to lose ground by not talking to businesses in the wider context about reducing food waste and food waste recycling. Unfortunately there will probably be less, not more, food waste collections from local councils because there is no imperative to maintain or introduce food waste recycling services because the tonnages and the savings aren’t high enough for councils to warrant rolling out collection services to millions of households. We’re probably going to have a flatline or a decline in the number of households with food waste collections because the gains from diverting food waste from incineration or landfill to anaerobic digestion aren’t sufficient for councils to sustain with very high additional costs for food waste collection services.

First Mile is making food waste recycling very easy and we’re providing a daily food waste collection service for every single business inside the M25 so that they can recycle more food waste. However, the tonnage of food waste collection is increasing year by year and that is because we are investing not in anaerobic digestion but in the collection infrastructure, which is what is required to get businesses to recycle more food waste. We are also shifting the dialogue to recycling food waste from businesses, but unfortunately the Government is moving very much around the household agenda, and not the businesses agenda much at all.

Map assembled from screenshots of the AD Portal Biogas Map

For additional information:

First Mile

Official Information Portal on Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion FAQs

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