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Commercial composting provides food for thought

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The retail sector and food manufacturers produce a mountain of waste but, unlike householders, they cannot simply throw it in the compost and wait for it to rot down. The Compost Association told edie about the obstacles in the way of recycling waste from the commercial sector.

Compared to household domestic waste, biodegradable matter from the retail and catering sector represents only a small percentage of the waste composted in this country. However, it does represent a significant challenge for the composting industry.

Biodegradable waste from the commercial and retail sector comes in a number of different forms. Former foodstuffs are defined in EU Regulation 1774 on animal by-products as being:

' ... former foodstuffs of animal origin, or former foodstuffs containing products of animal origin, other than catering waste, which are no longer intended for human consumption for commercial reasons or due to problems of manufacturing or packaging defects or other defects which do not present any risk to humans or animals ... '

Catering waste means 'all waste food including used cooking oil originating in restaurants, catering facilities and kitchens, including central kitchens and household kitchens'. This definition includes cafés and restaurants located within retail premises.

Why are former foodstuffs and catering waste such an issue for composters? During the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001, the composting of any animal by-products (including food derived in whole or in part from animals) was effectively prohibited because the resulting compost was not allowed to be spread on land.

In 2002, EU Regulation 1774 laying down the health rules concerning animal by-products not intended for human consumption stated the criteria for anaerobic digestion and composting treatment options for animal by-products.

Such wastes fall into one of three categories depending on risk. 'Former foodstuffs' are 'Category 3 material', the lowest risk category. The EU Regulation classes most kinds of 'catering waste' as 'Category 3 material' and allows each member state to apply national rules when catering waste is the only animal by-product type being treated.

The Animal By-Products Regulation 2003 in England and equivalent regulations in the devolved administrations of the UK set alternative 'national rule' conditions for the anaerobic digestion or composting of catering waste only.

The State Veterinary Service must approve all facilities treating animal by-products. Facilities approved under the EU Regulation may treat catering waste, former foodstuffs and all Category 3 animal by-products. The key issues for waste managers are that;

  • catering wastes are allowed to be disposed of in landfill, 
  • some kinds of former foodstuffs may not be disposed of in landfill, 
  • many facilities approved to biologically treat catering waste under the UK regulations do not also have approval to treat former foodstuffs, and 
  • facilities approved to the EU Standard may treat both catering waste and former foodstuffs.

The problem of how to dispose of biodegradable waste from the catering and retail sector is widespread and affects many different types of retailer. In the case of former foodstuffs, anyone who sells food products for consumption off the premises will be affected, unless the premise only stocks foodstuffs that contain no animal by-products.

For example, supermarkets, convenience stores, delicatessens, bakeries, petrol station forecourt shops, cafes and restaurants selling take away products, sandwich bars, etc. At the present time, this includes bread, biscuits, pasta, cakes, pastries and confectionary that come from premises that also handle meat and fish or meat and fish products.

Composters, particularly those treating catering wastes in accordance with national rules, must ensure that only the correctly segregated category of animal by-products is accepted at the facility, whether from household, commercial or industrial sources.

The animal by-products regulations were welcomed by industry when they came into effect. However, the length of time it takes to construct new plant and obtain the necessary approvals has meant that new infrastructure has been slow to become operational.

Requirements upon composting or anaerobic digestion treatment facilities handling animal by-products include:

  • an enclosed system that is bird and vermin proof, 
  • a pasteurisation/hygienisation unit that cannot be by-passed for anaerobic digestion plants or a closed composting reactor which cannot be by-passed for a composting facility, 
  • installations to measure temperature against time and to record the results continuously, 
  • an adequate safety system to prevent insufficient heating, 
  • separate 'clean' and 'unclean' areas to ensure that there is no cross contamination between unprocessed material and processed material, 
  • written cleaning and hygiene measures with suitable equipment and materials available, and 
  • written inspection, maintenance and calibration programmes and recording of such activities.

Compost produced from source segregated catering wastes or former foodstuffs can comply with the British Standards Institution's Publicly Available Specification for Composted Material, PAS 100:2005. Similarly, digestates derived from such wastes are eligible inputs to PAS100 composting processes.

This specification covers the production, quality and labelling of composted materials. It provides a means by which customers can specify quality composts and enables producers to differentiate their products.

Although the amount of retail and catering waste composted now is small, it has had a major impact on the development of the composting industry. According to results of the Composting Association's most recent survey of composting and biological treatment in 2004/05, the composting category that had increased most since the last survey was in-vessel composting.

In 2003/04, in-vessel composting represented just 7 % of all sites, compared to 11% in 2004 - 05. The estimated amount composted rose almost threefold, from 0.24 million tonnes in 2003/04 to 0.63 million tonnes in 2004/05, representing 23 % of the overall waste composted in 2004/05. This was probably due to the time required to role-out ABPR compliant facilities since introduction of EU Animal By-Products Regulations in 2002.

According to the most recent survey, non-household municipal waste from food processors, and retail and catering outlets respectively represented less than 100 tonnes of the 2.67 million tonnes of organic waste composted in 2004/05. In comparison, far more tonnes of non-municipal animal by-product waste were composted during that period (95,000 tonnes), and further significant growth in cost-effective collection of such commercial wastes is likely if there is a co-ordinated approach by businesses.

Given the current fragmented situation, landfill tax prices per tonne, tonnage and transport distances involved, the costs involved still represent a further brake on diversion to composting and digestion facilities.

The suggestion by DEFRA in the recent review of Waste Strategy 2000 that local authorities should have more responsibility for improving waste diversion from the commercial sector has been welcomed by composters.

The amount of commercial and industrial biowaste composted has not changed significantly in recent years. Again, the roll-out of ABPR compliant in-vessel composting systems may have been a rate-limiting factor.

There is still a long way to go if the UK is to meet the binding landfill diversion targets set for it by the EU. The Environment Agency has estimated that there may be as much as 6 million tonnes per annum of food wastes from commercial and industrial sources; there is clearly scope for significant expansion by the composting and biological treatment industry in this area.

The infrastructure to biologically treat animal by-products has increased, but at a slow rate due to the time required for decisions on planning applications. Government has recently consulted on how the interface between planning and facility permitting could be streamlined and is expected to announce changes in April 2007.

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