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UK government body, the Environment Agency (EA), recently changed its policy on the use of food waste management systems in the foodservice sector. On-site treatment at foodservice sites now no longer needs a permit, offering a practical alternative where off-site anaerobic digestion cannot take place.

So, what do food waste treatment system manufacturers think of this shift, and will it change the landscape of the sector as a whole?

According to Meiko UK’s specification director Mick Jary: “Waste to sewer has been a lengthy discussion between the industry and all relevant government bodies for the last 18 months plus. Is waste to sewer a long-term solution and does it need regulating in a tighter fashion? Meiko would suggest the answer to be yes but, until a better set of logistics is in place to support anaerobic digestion (AD) across all of the UK, then it is difficult argument to push. But government are aware of this and are working on an improved infrastructure.”

In his opinion: “The government push is clearly pointing towards waste to energy – or biogas. The UK does not have any more land to fill, so to ensure complete waste separation on kerbside collections, council charges for this will rise for commercial premises and the ROI for waste management will become more attractive.

“Meiko is a firm believer in the AD route because it provides, we believe, the most practical and ideal solution for the sustainable handling of food waste.”

“Of all the technologies in use, AD has the least impact on the environment, and it reduces the burden on the sewage system managed by local water authorities. Food waste handling systems to create AD suitable biomass, with the associated pipework and storage tanks, can be fitted to new and existing sites. The purchase cost is compensated by savings in labour and landfill collection costs, which are only ever going to rise, along with associated costs such as pest control and creating better working environments.”

But in terms of whether on-site or off-site treatment would cause hygiene issues, Jary believes: “Whether it is a benefit or a detriment is down to the type of food waste handling system operators choose. Besides Meiko’s BioMaster solution, most other food waste treatments have their limitations, most notably that they still need to laboriously manually separate certain items that cannot be processed (items such as soup, bones, oils, fats, flower stalks); and these still need to go to landfill. Staff are still handling black sacks and needing to regularly sanitise waste storage areas and bins for the landfill waste.”

At competitor, Mechline, marketing manager Kristian Roberts said of the latest regulatory developments: “Making it necessary for operators to possess a permit in order to treat food waste on-site would have made it difficult and costly for operators who do not have their food waste collected for AD, so we are pleased that the EA have updated their position on the requirement of a permit. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for managing food waste and operators should be able to make an informed choice on the best solution for their situation. Alternative technologies can provide a more practical and environmentally friendly solution, depending on the site and circumstances – and can also be used to complement AD.”

Mechline commissioned a multi criteria analysis (MCA) study of commercial food waste systems through sustainability consultancy Ricardo Energy & Environment, and the analysis seemed to show that whilst AD is generally the environmentally preferable process, as it can generate renewable energy, any scenario where practicality (and in some cases cost) is a significant concern could be better suited to an on-site biodigester.

Roberts detailed: “In the analysis, the practicality of different technologies was scored on the basis of various criterion – including odour and hygiene risks. The results showed that for AD, the hygiene and odour risks are high, as food waste needs to be stored onsite for a period of time.

“In comparison, with a biodigester, like Mechline’s Waste₂O, there is a low hygiene risk, as food is loaded into a chamber throughout the day, converted into waste water and safely sent straight to the drain. This leaves no solids to deal with, which reduces odours and lowers the risk of infestation. Utilising on-site food waste treatments also reduces the number of waste collections that are required, which can help to protect staff during a pandemic, as there is less social contact required.”

As to what systems distributors should recommend, Roberts added: “Dealers should always specify the best economic and environmental solution to re-process end-of-life food for each site. There are numerous considerations to factor in, such evaluation, including transportation costs, carbon emissions, pollutants and particulate discharges, storage costs and facilities, labour costs, energy consumption and costs, hygiene, ease of operation, waste recovery awareness, and segregation and undertaking.”

Elsewhere, Quintex sales manager Chris Stevens’ take on the current food waste system regulations is: “Meeting permit requirements was, and still is, very important but there have always been other considerations that drive the use of waste treatments systems. Safety, system effectiveness, operational efficiency, costs, complaints, etc. all play a part in the systems that are used, so just as long as the system used complies with the EA requirements, it can only be a good thing.”

On AD, he evaluated: “As with any solution, AD is effective when used in the right application. Obviously, you need to consider scale, the significant capital investment, logistics of gathering waste from multiple sites, operational expertise and of course, a use for the methane produced, e.g. burning it to produce electricity. When all these applications are managed efficiently and correctly, it can become an effective solution, however, as it stands currently around 20% of food waste that is collected for AD ends up in landfill due to contamination.”

But with hygiene considerations higher than ever at the moment, Stevens said of on-site systems: “Anything which reduces environmental/cleaning issues and minimises the need for physical intervention must be beneficial, especially in current climates. It works well with a package of synergistic bio and biodegradable cleaning products. As long as standards are maintained, and the correct products are used properly, then it shouldn’t have an adverse effect on foodservice hygiene.”

And as for what dealers should note with regards to choosing a treatment system, he feels: “There are lots of things to consider when specifying any food waste management system. We think the key areas to consider are safety, environmental compatibility, performance and also total lifetime cost for that performance. We have developed our Biofix line to ensure that it is effective both in application and in cost, whilst ensuring that the solution itself is environmentally safe, as the only by-products after digesting FOGs are CO2 and water.”

Over at Lincat group company IMC, Martin Venus, group head of category – bar systems and waste management was positive about the EA’s change of heart. “We only see this as a positive, for businesses wanting or needing to introduce a food waste treatment system it removes barriers and reduces the level of complexity. It also provides the financial saving of no longer having to pay for the permit.

“With the equipment being easier to implement this will assist in directing waste away from landfill, so it is a win-win situation.”

He also believes the manufacturer’s own system can assist with high hygiene requirements: “The IMC WasteStation helps kitchen hygiene, providing an effortless way to remove and reduce food waste. The fully enclosed system with a self-rinse function undertakes a quick rinse cycle after waste has been put through the hopper to prevent the build-up of any food, keeping the unit clean and waste-free.

“The volume of food waste is reduced by the WasteStation by up to 80%, cutting the third-party collection services that are required. This also limits the number of additional personnel with the potential to be carrying the coronavirus coming to site.”

At US-headquartered BioHiTech, business development director Tony Longstaff detailed: “We’re really pleased with the EA’s decision. Requiring operators to apply for a permit was likely to prove costly and was essentially unnecessary.

“While BioHiTech Global is an American company, we have been providing our products and services to customers in the UK market for more than 6 years. Our customers have benefited from our cost-saving solution while helping them to achieve their green and sustainability objectives. Our unique, patented technology automatically measures food waste to help businesses become instantly aware of how much food is being wasted so they can work towards creating less waste. The technology also provides real-time insights to sustainability directors as to how much food waste they are diverting from landfills, which can be captured in easy-to-read reports and shared with our clients’ leadership teams.”

Nevertheless, on the benefits of different system types, he commented: “While we believe strongly in our technology, we recognise that we are not the only solution in the market. However, we also believe that an AD solution is not the only option in the market. The AD process is very capital intense and requires significant investment to support such a project, as evidenced by the continued subsidies the AD industry receives annually by the UK government. Meanwhile, companies like ours in the UK catering equipment manufacturing industry do not receive any government subsidies. The ongoing subsidisation of the AD process does cause one to question the economic viability of such projects.”

Longstaff cautioned dealers that when specifying a food waste management system: “Prospects want to know how it works. More specifically, is it proven? With 6 years of experience in the UK market, we believe this question has been addressed multiple times over. Yes, the technology works brilliantly and is proven not only in the UK but around the world. Our latest announcement with Carnival Cruise Line now has us solving a problem for our hospitality customers not only on land but also on water, further illustrating the capability of the technology.”

Fellow American firm Power Knot has thousands of installations of its LFC biodigesters globally. Company president Iain Milnes surmised: “We have proved our systems are safe. The majority of our biodigesters discharge to the public sewer, but we have machines installed in remote locations where they discharge to septic tanks and private sewage treatment plants. We have machines installed on resort islands in the Great Barrier Reef which has to be one of the most ecologically critical environments.

“The point is that some jurisdictions have opposed the use of biodigesters at facilities within their operating areas. Such opposition is sometimes based on lack of knowledge or preconceived notions. The new guidelines help to allay the fears of those jurisdictions and should make for an easier process to adopt the technology of LFC biodigesters.”

But on the AD method, he said: “If you take organic waste and let it decompose anaerobically, you can create methane and use it as an energy source. The realisation of building an AD plant is not so simple. The operator of an AD plant is paid to receive its fuel. In that way, I don’t think there is any AD plant in operation that actually is profitable.

“Several years ago, a university in London created a report on the lifecycle analysis of deploying LFC biodigesters rather than building an anaerobic facility. This report was undertaken with a grant from the European Commission. Among its conclusions were: aerobic digestion using the LFC produces 73% fewer emissions than anaerobic digestion for the communities, and the lowest possible payback period for the LFC was 1.18 years versus that of 8.17 for the AD and CHP plants.”

Regarding hygiene, Milnes reported that the US’s Center for Disease Control states there is currently no evidence to support transmission of Covid-19 associated with food. “The safety of disposing waste food into an LFC biodigester should therefore be unaltered in these times of a pandemic,” he said. “However, the usual hygiene benefits of having an LFC biodigester in a facility, especially if it is in the kitchen where the food is prepared or gathered for disposal, remain true today.”

Back in the UK, Waste2ES MD Richard Harland welcomed the latest EA decision: “I feel it is a positive move as food waste left uncollected for longer than 48 hours increases the risk of pest attraction and the associated costs. A technology solution such as our iD-R systems process the food waste as it arises, eliminating the pest issue.

“It’s a multi-faceted benefit; reducing the frequency of waste contractor visits by 70% lowers the potential risk and the carbon impact on the environment. On-site systems can improve/encourage recycling rates and reduce general waste costs because the onus of segregation is on the operator.”

In contrast, he was more equivocal about AD as a treatment option: “AD is in principle the right solution to the food and organic waste issue, particularly as legislation moves to zero organics to landfill. However, AD in its current format is almost always remotely placed and heavily dependent on waste management logistics. A foodservice client simply pays a gate fee to another process and the foodservice provider rarely benefits from the energy produced from this valuable resource.

“We challenge this by introducing a new solution to market with our iD-R-5K CompactAD technology which is designed for use in urban environments and therefore offers a ‘keeping it local’ solution. We convert foodservice clients’ food waste into energy which they can benefit from directly. This can be electricity, gas, heat and/or cooling.”

For system specification, Harland concluded: “The foodservice sector is under immense pressure considering the restrictions on social distancing which have inevitably reduced the number of covers served.

“Any solution should be cost effective and if possible present a revenue opportunity instead of cost. The solution should be environmentally future-proof, I say this because grey water systems seemed like a good idea until the legislation outlawed their use in Scotland and Wales, with the rest of the UK soon to follow suit.

“Mechanical dewatering should be avoided, these technologies contribute to increases in FOG- drainage issues that result in costly call outs. The system needs to have minimal operational impact in terms of use; back of house teams are already stretched and time pressures to carry out onerous pre-conditioning of the waste should be avoided.”

The brains behind the change

Waste treatment systems-makers have FEA to thank for the UK government’s volte face on on-site management permits. The association’s chief executive, Keith Warren, said he was “delighted” with the decision, detailing: “The change was achieved by the FEA Food Waste Product Group, who presented a strong and well thought-out case, engaging with both the EA and DEFRA.

“The EA had identified a gap in policy enforcement and wanted there to be a requirement that operators applied and paid for permits to treat food waste on-site. Many equipment manufacturers were sent letters last October requesting performance characteristics of their food waste management systems. FEA’s Food Waste Product Group worked with these manufacturers to present a collective position. This gave figures relating to market penetration of food waste management systems and the estimated waste volumes being treated. It also underlined the issues that operators face in managing their food waste.”

On the subject of off-site anaerobic digestion (AD), Warren analysed: “AD has a key part to play in the process of managing food waste and turning it into a resource. However there are issues. There have been examples where the capacity outstrips the supply, and this forces the use of crops grown specifically to go into the process. Plus, up to 20% of food waste collected for AD goes to landfill, due to contamination.

“The real issue is to allow operators the opportunity to ensure the solution they choose meets their needs. Many equipment manufacturers’ food waste solutions supplement AD. However, there is no ‘one size fits all solution.’ Alternative on-site systems of food waste management can contribute significantly towards the zero-landfill targets. These include dewaterers, digesters, sink to sewer disposal, in vessel composters and grease traps, grease removal units and bacterial dosers.”

But in light of an even higher focus on hygiene in the wake of the coronavirus, Warren cautioned: “AD relies on kerbside collection – this brings its own hygiene issues. If kerbside collection services are disrupted or cancelled, there would be clear hygiene hazards. On-site treatment can eliminate this issue and resolves the problems of collection in remote locations.

“Will on-site systems provide a more hygienic solution? They may do – it comes down to the physical need and constraints of the site. What’s the most hygienic, most ecologically sound and most cost-effective solution? The system, or combination of systems, that works best for the individual site.”