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Addressing climate change from a waste services perspective - Resource Futures

Addressing climate change from a waste services perspective - Resource Futures

Sarah Hargreaves, Senior Consultant at Resource Futures talks about addressing climate change with a focus on food and from a waste services perspective.

If we’d looked forward to 2020 a decade ago, could we have imagined how much would have changed?

David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have brought important and complex topics to worldwide public consciousness - a monumental task many sectors have been trying to achieve for years. In 2019 the UK became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency. Now, at the time of writing this, around 274 individual UK local authorities have declared a climate emergency (according to That’s a significant number, and a likely source of the increasing calls we are seeing at Resource Futures around how to factor carbon neutrality into waste management practices.

What does that mean for local authorities? And how do you start to turn these declarations and policies into real change whilst avoiding knee-jerk reactions? The release of the UK Government’s Resources and Waste strategy has provoked many local authorities to start asking about the impact of upcoming changes (such as deposit return schemes, extended producer responsibility and compulsory separate food recycling collections) in order to make decisions now that will work for the long-term. After a decade of unprecedented public and government momentum, it’s time to start moving into decisive action.

Food - the defining issue of the 21st Century

There are no one-size-fits-all answers to how to address climate emergency action. Each council’s plan, on waste or any other area, will depend on the individual context, the local perspective and the stakeholders that bind it all together. But looking at food is always a good place to start.

The EAT-Lancet Commission report released in January 2019 stated that food would likely be the defining issue of the 21st century1. Research by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) indicates that our food system is responsible for around 20–30% of all global human-made greenhouse gases, with the major impacts coming from farming, agriculture and land-use change2.

As food forms such a central theme in our lives and our communities, it will be an essential consideration in any climate change action plan and an area where local authorities have some influence.
The Resources and Waste Strategy made it clear that the UK government intends to make separate food waste collections mandatory from 2023. In terms of the carbon impact of food, any initiatives that cut carbon impact will be welcomed.

But from a waste services perspective, calculating the carbon impact isn’t that simple and requires careful consideration of many factors: from existing disposal routes for organic waste, to the impact of collection vehicle emissions on air quality, and of course the continued need to maximise cost efficiency. At Resource Futures we are using carbon impact tools to assess collection services and additional tools are currently in development so it will be interesting to see how work progresses in this area over the coming months. 

Roughly 50% of local authorities in England currently provide food recycling collections, but only 35% provide a dedicated separate collection as proposed in the Resources and Waste Strategy, so many local authorities have a food related journey ahead of them to achieve that government target.

Modelling the case for food

Only recently, we worked with a local authority to model a range of collection solutions that would introduce a consistent food recycling collection across a multi-borough region where a range of different recycling and refuse collections already existed.

This multiple collection system landscape is surprisingly common. Even where food recycling collections do exist, they can take many variations across a region, even in related authorities. Combine that with comingled collections versus kerbside sort, the variety of collection frequencies, and the plethora of container types – not to mention the availability and type of available processing plants and the bind of existing contractual obligations – and it soon becomes clear that modelling the case for food involves navigating a complex environment.

Consistency and optimisation

Understanding the cost implications and impacts of adding a food waste collection into an existing mix of services within a local demographic and infrastructure context is a challenge, and one that keeps our waste optimisation team very busy as local authorities seek solutions.

Our work with local authorities across the UK provides ongoing evidence that householders continue to put food in the residual bin - even where recycling collections are present. Our engagement work also continually highlights that those groups of residents are harder to reach than others. The highly successful and innovative Slim my Waste, Feed my Face campaign by Bristol Waste Company has seen great increases in food waste capture, but even in Bristol we are starting to find that plateau point beyond which it’s hard to make that extra nudge.

Modelling the available options only gives a full picture when coupled with on the ground data collection and analysis, to envisage a real-world scenario. In the case of our multi-borough local authority seeking a consistent food recycling collection, our evidence team has now taken over to deliver the pilot phase of the research. This hands-on evidence gathering will not only look at participation rates for different piloted systems but will also look at the waste composition of the organic stream to find out what impact each option is actually having.

It’s connecting these processes – and building an understanding of how they impact behaviours – that will enable councils to fit together the wider puzzle and make advances in food management efficiencies.

Reduce and reuse

How we recycle any food waste is an obvious ‘go to’ for any council looking at food efficiencies. But as the lowest rung of the food waste hierarchy it’s also worth thinking a bit more outside the box.

Regardless of what collection system you have in place, the Sustainable Food Cities movement is a great way for any council to re-evaluate all aspects of food across the city and seek long term changes across a wide range of food issues. It’s a way to bring together the whole community – essential in any climate change action – combining knowledge, infrastructure and activity to put food centre stage. Resource Futures is currently working with a range of food-related stakeholders across Bristol to address food waste as an ‘area of excellence’ in a bid to become one of the first gold accredited Sustainable Food Cities. The bold city-wide bid is being led by Bristol City Council and joins Bristol with 25 other cities in the UK who are looking to establish policy-based solutions that will ensure long term changes and food efficiency.

Mobilising stakeholders across the city means we can tackle a wide range of food issues, such as enabling existing food redistribution organisations to work together more efficiently to reduce food wastage. This can help maximise routes to food reuse, which in turn will help address food inequality. Increasing urban growing activities also helps here by making fresh food available for free to all. This in turn links to increased community action and encourages better eating habits and improved health and wellbeing. Healthy eating can also be built into improved procurement practices, and dynamic procurement makes more space for local producers to join the scene, reducing food miles and associated carbon footprints.

The Sustainable Food Cities concept provides an existing way to navigate through a range of existing council challenges using food as the key and there are almost limitless food related wins to be found.

Next steps

Any actions taken to address climate change will take time to establish – there can be no immediate or generic solutions to such a complex challenge. Food is of course only one part of the complex jigsaw of changes councils will need to address in the next few years. But putting a focus on food is certainly a good place to start. It is only by looking at the local context, staying focussed and action driven, and engaging the local community that councils will be able to achieve lasting and meaningful change. Will we have come far enough as the next decade dawns in 2030?

By Sarah Hargreaves, Senior Consultant at Resource Futures

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