Waste Management Review explores why so few businesses have food waste collection and processing systems in place.
The Federal Government’s 2011 National Food Waste Assessment called the increased generation of food waste a global and national problem – specifically highlighting concerns over the economic and environmental viability of existing food waste disposal systems.
In the following eight years, the issue of food waste generation has persisted, with the 2018 National Food Waste Baseline Report showing 7.3 million tonnes of the waste stream was produced between 2016 and 2017 – the equivalent of 298 kilograms per person.
According to the report, 7.3 million tonnes represents 4.9 per cent of Australia’s total waste.
In an interview with Waste Management Review earlier this year, MRA Consulting’s Mike Ritchie estimated that only five per cent of Australian businesses separate and recycle their food and organic waste.
Given generation figures, developing programs to incentivise businesses to recycle food waste could significantly reduce waste to landfill.
The 2017 Food Waste Opportunities report, prepared by the Institute of Sustainable Futures for the NSW EPA, shows the two principal contributors of food waste sent to landfill in NSW are the wholesale and retail sector.
Additionally, the report shows that of the 236,000 tonnes of food waste generated by those sectors in 2016, only 13 per cent was recycled.
When applied to businesses, the cost of food waste exceeds environmental disposal concerns, with the stream creating lost expenditure on food, wasted staff time, customer dissatisfaction and hygiene issues.
According to the Food Waste Opportunities report, the reasons for not recycling food waste ranged from staff not being aware or willing to separate food waste from general waste, insufficient financial motivation, lack of space, cost of food waste recycling compared to general waste collection, a limited number of recycling facilities and issues around contamination via packaging.
Wholesalers and retailers expressed particular concern over the lack of sufficient collection services for food waste, according to the report.
One facility specifically mentioned by industry stakeholders in the report was EarthPower, a joint venture between Veolia and Cleanaway.
EarthPower, which received a grant from the NSW EPA to enable the processing of more food waste, operates at a capacity of 52,000 tonnes per annum – half of which reportedly comes from the wholesale and retail food sector. According to the report, EarthPower already operates at the limit of its capacity.
The facility reported that more food waste exists in the market than EarthPower has the ability to process, and as such they have to be selective about what material they take.
A spokesperson for the NSW EPA told Waste Management Review that while the number of businesses in NSW reducing their food waste through recycling was growing, there is significant room for improvement via the implementation of grants and education programs.
In 2018, the EPA introduced grant funding to support businesses wanting to separate food and other organic waste from their standard waste collection.
Organics collections grants, for example, provide up to $500,000 for business food collections as part of the $105.5 million Waste Less Recycle More Organics Infrastructure Fund, delivered through a partnership between the EPA and the NSW Environmental Trust.
“The funding supports legal advice to extend existing food collection contracts to business, vehicles, redesign work to accommodate extra bins, weighing equipment and equipment to facilitate centralised collections like trailers and towing devices,” the spokesperson says.
Similarly, rebates from $1000 to $50,000 are available to finance equipment purchases for businesses trying to avoid food waste through recycling. Eligible equipment to support organics management includes compost bins and worm farms, digesters, macerators and source separation bins.
The spokesperson says the Your Business is Food education program, which provides businesses with resources to reduce food waste focusing on preparation, storage and serving size, has been successful.
“The program has since been adopted by Victoria and the UK, with an average 21 per cent reduction in food waste being achieved by participating businesses,” the spokesperson says.
Food Innovation Australia Limited (FIAL) Managing Director Mirjana Price expresses similar sentiments. She says Australian businesses are committed to being environmentally responsible, but require simpler processes and pathways.
When a business wants to recycle its cardboard or glass, the mechanisms to do this are already in place. Food waste recycling processes, however, are not widely understood.
According to Mirjana, FIAL provides grants to small and medium industry operators to develop innovative responses to food waste.
“The grants enable approved small and medium businesses to gain access to cutting-edge researchers so they can collaboratively explore options for reducing their waste and increasing profitability,” Mirjana says.
Mirjana says encouraging businesses to take action on food waste extends beyond individual grants and education programs and requires large-scale government support and initiatives.
“This could take the form of tax break incentives, developing case studies for innovative practices and delivering upskilling and capability building programs across the food value chain to raise the capability and capacity of businesses to respond to food waste,” Mirjana says.
“A key initiative FIAL will roll out as part of the Federal Government’s National Food Waste Strategy is a voluntary commitment program.”
Program signatories will pledge to report on their progress against a set of actions known to reduce food waste.
Mirjana says transparent monitoring and reporting against agreed parameters will provide much-needed evidence to track signatories’ progress against food waste reduction targets.
The most current national data on the amount of food waste generated by businesses is in the National Food Waste Baseline – but it uses data that the report acknowledges can be highly variable.
Due to the limited prior attention on food waste and commercial confidentiality constraints, the report acknowledges many businesses currently don’t have reporting frameworks in place to track their food waste or its economic value. This places uncertainty on data management, food waste definitions and transparency of end destinations, the report notes.
“As awareness of the problem and opportunities for change grows, this will catalyse others to take action and build the momentum to have a significant impact on food waste reduction,” Mirjana says.
“The work done to date is just the tip of the iceberg and there is much more we can do to spread the word around food waste.”
While raising awareness is important, cost of implementation is a major deterrent for businesses when considering whether to recycle their food waste, according to the Food Waste Opportunities report.
Taking the need for additional bins for source separation, additional transport costs and staff time management into account, food waste recycling is often perceived to be too expensive for businesses.
In a 2016 Love Food Hate Waste program evaluation prepared for the NSW EPA, implementation cost was a key focus. After partaking in the program, fewer businesses thought food waste recycling was cost efficient, down 17 per cent from the initial survey. The evaluation concluded that further incentives around cost reduction were needed.
This lack of industry consensus again highlights the need for national data and government investigation.
Enrich360 CEO Dean Turner says businesses don’t recycle food waste at the same rate as other waste streams due to misconceptions about difficulty.
“Food waste is not inherently more difficult to deal with than other recyclable waste streams, it’s more an issue of people not understanding it,” Dean says.
“Many years ago, businesses decided to separate cardboard and bottles from their general waste.
“This was equally as hard to implement at the time but is now standard practice – it’s just about accepting there is a different and better way of doing things.”
According to Dean, enrich360’s dehydration equipment can process most food and reduce the volume of the waste by up to 93 per cent.
“If a company produces 200 kilos of food waste, it will have to be collected each day. Using our machinery they can reduce that to 20 kilos of biomass and have it collected once a week,” Dean says.
Enrich360 provides businesses with dehydration equipment, reducing waste rates and therefore storage space. The resulting biomass is then collected and used as slow release fertiliser for farms that grow food, facilitating a closed loop system.
Enrich360’s reuse model reflects industry recommendations. Planet Ark, for example, advocates that hotels, restaurants and other large food service establishments consider the installation of industrial onsite composters. This though requires significant capital investment.
Dean says enrich360 functions to remove this investment strain through purchase, rent and rent-to-own options – enabling businesses to dehydrate food waste on site and have it collected for offsite composting.
According to Dean, if governments took the necessary steps to make food waste recycling compulsory for large generators, significant volumes of waste would be diverted from landfill.
The City of Melbourne’s Degraves Street Recycling Facility is an example of a local government taking those steps, with the council installing a communal food waste digester in 2013.
The project was designed to help businesses set up source separation systems in their kitchens.
Additionally, council recycling operators were employed to work collaboratively with traders to overcome challenges such as space constraints, late night operating hours, high staff turnover and behaviour change.
An audit of 32 businesses in the precinct prior to the facilities installation found waste streams were 90 per cent food or other recyclables.
According a 2015 project report by the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group, the Degraves precinct saw a 68.9 per cent reduction in food waste following the facilities establishment.
While the Degraves Street Recycling Facility has proved successful, given the scale of the waste stream, it is unlikely councils alone can adequately address the issue of incentivising food waste recycling without further support.