The solution to food waste according to J Sainsbury

Filed in Blog by on January 28, 2009 34 Comments
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sainsburys to convert food waste into electricityI’m not sure how I feel about this story (or should I say that there aren’t enough expletives to express myself adequately on a public forum), so I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

I read on the Which? website yesterday that the supermarket chain Sainsburys, following a successful pilot in 40 of their stores, are no longer going to send food waste to landfill.

Currently they send around 80,000 tonnes of waste every year to the landfill; the majority of which is food waste. That would feed a few hungry mouths, right?

The fact that they have plans to completely stop sending food waste to landfill sites by next summer, and to stop sending any waste (including non-food waste) to landfill sites by the end of next year is something to celebrate, surely.

The thing is, they are going to convert this waste into electricity which will be used to light and heat their stores.

The process involves converting food waste into methane gas through new technology in digester plants. The gas can then be converted to electricity to light and heat the company’s stores.

The supermarket chain plans to build further digester plants across the UK to help fuel all its 800 stores.

I’m scratching my head here. On the surface it sounds great; anything that helps keep 80,000 tonnes of stuff from our landfills sounds ideal. But in true British fashion, this ‘solution’ is not getting to the root of the problem or dealing with a situation before the problem materialises. It’s another superficial elastoplast treatment on a deep wound that needs cleaning out and stitching.

Around the world and in our own neighbourhoods people starve, and now we’re going to use leftover food to heat and light our supermarkets? What about offering food that to people who cannot afford it at full price? What about getting over ourselves and the fear of litigation, the fear of missing out on a couple of percent profit and making an altruistic move? What about educating people to look further than skin deep when selecting and choosing produce?

I understand that it is better to capture the methane and put it to good use, rather than letting it go up into the environment like it does from a landfill, but something’s missing, surely.

Or am I missing something? Am I not understanding something vital? Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

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About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (34)

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  1. John Costigane says:

    Hi Mrs Green,

    I worked a winter at M&S and was appalled at the amount of stuff thrown out, especially at the festive season. There were reduced prices offer for staff, however.

    Discarded food should be available for charitable distribution. There are probably food laws affecting this, particularly sell by dates and their legal consequences for the superstore, in this case.

    One problem I see is the Anaerobic Digestion system they have proposed. How do they deal with the plastic wrapped food? Obviously plastic would devalue the resulting digestate making it suitable only for landfill; a big problem and yet another reason for ditching the wastebound plastic packaging.

  2. Poppy says:

    This might explain why Master P and all his friends were given JS Hot Cross Buns yesterday!! His school is the nearest one to our local JS and the stores have been swamped with the things. The cashiers even have a stack by the side of them at each till and ask every customer if they would like to buy some. 89p BOGOF I think. My answer is “No, it’s not Easter”.

  3. Kris says:

    It does sound like one of those mixed messages where they’ve decided to do something helpful – and picked the wrong way to go about it.

    I find it difficult to keep up as there seems to be every side of argument presented as the greenest – the Telegraph today is espousing incinerators as much better than recycling on the front page.

    Funnily enough, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart about the Easter stuff being in the shops already… yesterday my aunt bought herself a Galaxy Caramel bar in front of me, and I mentioned how rarely I see those, and really enjoy them, but wasn’t getting myself one as the packaging is plastic. Today I bought myself the Galaxy Caramel in egg form, which comes foil wrapped.

  4. John Costigane says:

    @Kris: Incinerators are the favourite of the Government, Councils, Superstores, Waste Management companies and most worringly the BBC.

    The Toxic fly ash, the increased morbidity (including the very young) and the polluted landscape are just 3 of the “Joys” of these “lovely” structures.

    If these monsters are introduced, even in the face of strong public objection, let us all closely monitor the air, the land and people’s health in the surrounding area. If there is any bad effect we should let those responsible bear the full burden of the law’s power against transgressors.

  5. Mr Green says:

    This is a very cunning move by Sainsbury’s. On the face of it, it appears to be a good solution to the problem and that’s exactly what it is… a solution, not a prevention. I think it is one of the most inhumanitarian acts which shows no concern for the appaling waste of food in this country and only focuses on upside of lower landfill and a freebe of electricity. This is exactly the same mentality that supports the use of incinerators; it gets rid of the problem, rather than attempts to prevent it. While we applaud sainsbury’s clever tactics, why don’t we abolish family planning and make euthanasia compulsory at 80 years old as well. It’s the same sort of blind thinking! Allow the problem to happen with impunity, then get rid of it when it’s in the way…

    If sainsbury’s had an ounce of moral fibre and creativity, they would have announced an alternative program to reduce their food waste and spoilage through better stock control and buying policies, that do not rely on profiteering. In addition they would allow sell by date food to be given away to refuges, hostels, charities and homeless workers. Food is sometimes given away in our local Lidls store and I don’t see any stories of health litigation cases from the grateful recipients.

    Lets’ be honest, the real reason why supermarkets don’t want to give food away, is because they are afraid people will ‘take advantage’… get things on the ‘free’ and deprive them of the £millions of profits. That’s a far bigger crime than feeding the hungry

    Sorry, a BIG thumbs down from me.

  6. Rik Boland says:

    I total agree with you.

    They should sell the food at reduced rates or give it to soup kitchen/soup runs. When I was a student I ran a soup run in my town and no one would give us food, kick outs. Not even coffee shops. My partner works at a high street posh coffee shop and they actually not allowed to donate this food. How appauling this makes you and even worse still, freeganism is illegal, why!

  7. Layla says:

    Oh gosh!!

    See the other link I posted today – on how ‘just methane’ is never ‘just methane’ especially if also other plastics and other waste are involved!! grr!!

    Was hoping for at least a composting facility also, or something!! (There’s a composting and recycling facility combined with an incinerator here in Slovenia..)
    It will be even more necessary than ever to closely monitor the local council’s decisions etc and vote NO on proposed incinerators when still possible.. and yup watch the damn things.. In Trieste incinerator (Italy), 2 blocks/furnaces out of 3 had to be closed because of too much dioxin – and that with only measuring dioxin 1x every 6 months, and the polluters knowing in advance!!

    zero waste week had great exposure in the UK, maybe use the PR facilities you all have access too, and also tell what EfW incinerators really are?! also it would be probably better to promote ‘make less waste’ more heavily than just to promote recycling..?
    ‘Confuse’ and ‘greenwash’ are the polluters’ first tactics!!

  8. Hmm…I think this is one of those good, better, best kind of scenarios. It’s certainly better to use the food to produce electricity than it is to let it rot in the landfill, but it’s not exactly a better or best sort of option either.

  9. Mrs Jackson says:

    Surely they should be encouraging less waste in the first place. That just sends out the message it’s okay to waste. Trying to lessen our food waste has been a real eye-opener this week, it’s amazing how quickly people will bin things rather than eat it or even feed the animals with it.

  10. Poppy says:

    How much energy would they save by not producing too much in the first place?

  11. Layla says:

    @Mrs Jackson: Exactly.

    When they built an incinerator in Vienna, the municipal authorities really tried and wanted to get people to make less waste, but in the end they gave up & built another incinerator.. 🙁
    Guess if you’re used to ‘things being burnt’& ‘disappearing’ anyway (& if you keep telling them the incinerator is a good thing 🙁 ), it’s difficult to change anyone’s habits..

    @[email protected]: It is a matter of ‘good better best’ but sadly sometimes an incinerator can actually be worse than landfill..

    QUOTE from : “There is limited data comparing emissions from landfill gas flares to energy producing combustion devices (which includes boilers, turbines and internal combustion engines).

    According to very limited data in a 1995 EPA report, carbon monoxide and NOx emissions are highest from internal combustion engines and lowest from boilers. Flares and gas turbines are in the middle.5

    Dioxin emissions data is also very sparse. EPA, in their 1998 dioxin inventory, looks at only a few tests and shows that, for the most part, flares produce more dioxin than internal combustion engines or boiler mufflers.6 However, a more comprehensive review (by the County Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County in 1998) of about 20 studies involving 76 tests at 27 facilities shows that internal combustion engines on average produce 44% more dioxin than shrouded flares. Since there is high variability in dioxin emissions from landfill gas burners (based on composition of waste dumped and also on the combustion technology – internal combustion engines are much more variable), these figures should not be applied to site-specific situations.7

    Burning landfill gas is dirtier than burning natural gas. Whether using an internal combustion engine or a gas turbine, burning landfill gas to produce energy emits more pollution per kilowatt hour than natural gas does.8

    Why is it that natural gas (a non-renewable resource which is not considered “green energy”) burns cleaner than landfill gas, yet energy from landfill gas gets away with being considered renewable green power?”

    Basically it depends on what kind of waste there is..

    There may be new data & I only googled this thing up today (if you can’t open it google ‘methane dioxin’ and it will be the 5th link or so..) so feel free to research more..

    In my opinion, composting facilities (separate food from plastic packaging etc) & reducing packaging overall would be much better.. While ideally the food would be given to charity organisations, soup kitchens or such.. I think they have some kind of programme like that in the US… (at least for tins etc)

    I wish Greenpeace or other similar organisation/organisations had strong campaignes for really greening chain stores & companies.. Their ‘greenmyapple’ campaign seemed quite successful, with at least some results..

  12. Here here! Thanks for opening a great discussion on this. I think it’s important that we not take all the green being spread around the news at face value. You’re right – it is good to cut down on landfill waste, but I too think there are probably some hungry people who should be first in line.

    I also wonder about whether the energy generated by this food waste will become mandetory – meaning, there would never be a program to REDUCE food waste because they need to keep producing energy.

  13. abmer says:

    @Mr Green:


    Thanks for opening up this discussion – I have been wanting to rant about this Sainsbury’s thing for weeks.

    Let me explain exactly why I am seething about the whole disgusting waste of food by this supermarket giant…

    I went to my local Sainsbury’s just before closing (when you can usually bag a bargain for the freezer). The shop assistant was reducing sausages and as my mum eats meat I thought perfect for my low waged parents freezer. I got talking to her and she had reduced the pack of sausages to just 25P a real bargain from original £1.85, she told me that she would get in trouble for reducing them that low these days as now all food waste has to be “transported” back to Central Depot to be sent to an Energy from Waste Plant. My ears pricked up as I was running as a candidate for an independent local party (called Suffolk Together) in the Local Government Elections on the very subject of waste and my campaign’s key focus was against the local conservatives plan to build 3 incinerators for suffolk. I am fully aware of Biodigesters as I had recently had a meeting with a firm who propose them as alternatives to Landfill and Incineration.

    The shop assistant said that no longer are they allowed to reduce to a figure that would mean that the public bought the waste at a very low price price – say 25P and that before this rule came in the staff used to have the “perk” of being allowed to take home reduced priced food very cheaply and this is one of the reasons she had chosen to work at Sainsbury’s to help reduce her family’s food bill by taking advantage of this.

    So as I see it, its plain and simple greed – they are fed up with people buying a £3 ready meal for 50p and taking it home and freezing it as it ruins their profits – GREED, GREED GREED -<
    Mr Sainsbury – If you called me up and told me that you had a mass of food which needs to be disposed of but it was fine to eat – I can promise you one thing I would be over like a flash – I would take that food and distribute it amongst the people I know in my village and would probably make many friends doing it.

    A message to the supermarket owners of the UK – ensure your stock control mechanisms are righe and then discount your food at genuine discounts and you wont have a waste problem – YOUR CUSTOMERS HAVE THEIR OWN BIODIGESTERS THEY ARE CALLED THEMSELVES, THEIR CHILDREN, THEIR DOGS AND CATS AND THEIR PET HENS!

    I am begging everyone to try and ask someone who is a champion of food to help us – Jamie Oliver – If you have any influence on your boss’s at Sainsbury’s HQ tell them to let the customers have a bargain every now and again and the waste problem will dissapear. For the information of Sainsbury’s boss’s when I go bargain shopping at the end of the eveing I enevitably buy something at full price which I would not have normally done – so you are indeed profiting really.

    Come on give the UK a break – give the public a chance to “try something new today” at a fraction of the cost, reduce your waste and they may actually like the product that much that they buy at full price on a day when there is no waste available to buy – dont sign up to contracts with Biodigester company’s when there is an economic crisis hitting hard working families hard. What a crazy world we live in!

  14. Mrs Green says:

    @abmer: Abmer, welcome to the site and thank you for your insightful post. What a shame about the new policy where food is sent to incineration rather than being used to feed people. In a time when people are finding it difficult to make ends meet and in other countries across the world there are people starving, this feels so wrong.

    Like you say, we inevitably end up buying something we did not intend for anyway, so the profit margin will still be there for the big boys.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts; it was very interesting to read of your views and experience.

  15. This is an exceptionally well formulated exploration of Sainsbury’s zero waste to landfill policy. As everyone here appears to agree, Sainsbury’s has achieved an unbelievable PR coup by convincing the media that they are doing something ‘positive’ by sending around 60,000 tonnes of food annually to be rotted down into methane or incinerated. The energy reclaimed by anaerobic digestion (AD) is a miniscule fraction of the energy that went into producing the food in the first place.

    As I show in my book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin, 2009), for example, putting a tonne of tomatoes through an anaerobic digester recoups less than 0.75 per cent of the emissions released in producing them in the first place. From a global warming perspective, that means it is at least 130 times better to avoid growing the unwanted tomatoes than to turn them into gas.

    Sainsbury’s does redistribute some food to charities, but only a small proportion: it still wastes around 90% of its unsold food. There is no good reason for this. In the US food redistribution charities such as Feeding America, redistribute surplus on a nationwide scale; the US still wastes enormous quantities of food, but supermarkets in the UK have a very long way to go to catch up with the levels of food donation engaged in by their colleagues in the US.

    Anyone interested in how simple it would be for food companies to reduce their food waste dramatically should please read my book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal or visit my website Invariably, waste reducing measures are not even injurious to profits or consumer choice. For example, when food companies in the UK send food to landfill or AD they pay around £50 per tonne in taxes and/or disposal costs. AD is not profitable without charging ‘gate fees’ for disposal, it is a waste disposal service for which companies have to pay. If food is donated instead, the company avoids the disposal costs.

  16. John Costigane says:

    @Tristram Stuart: Why are you talking down Anaerobic Digestion ( AD) of food waste? This AD process removes such waste from landfill and EfW, with both having negative effects on the environment? The biogas created is sustainable and renewable and therefore an excellent way to process all food waste.

    Sainsbury’s policy of discontinuing cheap food, near the use-by date, is not such a good idea however, since there are plenty of people in dire need. There is value in using such food in an organised fashion, like the US. This will probably require government action. Might I suggest you run an e-poll to gather 2000 signatures for this.

  17. John Costigane. We are entirely in agreement that AD is better than landfill, among other disposal methods. The UK’s landfill tax is precisely designed to encourage businesses and councils to divert waste from landfill, in order to meet the country’s obligations under the EU Landfill Directive. Landfill tax plus disposal costs (£50+ per tonne) have now reached a level whereby AD, composting and other alternatives have become economically viable. It now costs roughly the same and sometimes less for a company to pay an AD plant to process their food waste instead. The resultant methane, as you say, is a source of renewable fuel, and it is for this reason the UK government is awarding elecricity from AD double the allocation of Renewable Obligation Certificates as compared to other forms of renewable energy.

    The point I make in my book is that it would be much better to avoid wasting all that food in the first place, either by substantially discounting food, giving it away for free to customers (as Mr Green rightly notes Lidl have dabbled with), or donating it charitably before the date expiry to organisations such as Fareshare , a nationwide food redistribution organisation whose activities I have promoted for several years. Even better would be for supermarkets to reign in their policy of deliberately over-stocking shelves in the first place, thereby avoiding the creation of so much surplus.

    The economic, environmental and social value of the energy recouped by AD is a tiny fraction of the resources that went into producing the food. It is therefore surprising that supermarkets have managed to receive such high accolades for diverting their food waste to AD, when firstly, they are doing so primarily as an economic response to taxes imposed by the government, and secondly, because it still means they are wasting all that food, much of it unnecessarily.

  18. P.S. John, I like the idea of the petition and it fits in with a campaign I shall be launching later this year.

  19. John Costigane says:

    @Tristram Stuart: Tristram, Supermarket practice creates a lot of waste and, having worked in an upmarket one at Christmas time, have seen the colossal amounts that result.

    Dealing with this waste issue would require downsizing of supermarkets, which will never happen. The best thing would be for consumers to shop elsewhere, eg local shopping in smaller retailers. This is a Zero waste option as well which I use extensively.

    Best of luck with your campaign. It has links to Zero Waste. From experience, I would advise you to promote your campaign widely on the various web forums. This would help get more support for an e-petition.

  20. John.

    It’s absolutely not the case that supermarket’s can’t or will never do anything about reducing their food waste. One upmarket chain – M&S – which I interviewed for my book, took the policy decision last year to introduce price-reductions for near-expiry stock – something they had never done before as a company. They estimated that this would reduce their food waste by 10 percent. That is a small, but nevertheless dramatic step, and one that can – and I believe will – be advanced further.

    There are of course ideal solutions such as buying from farmers’ markets or growing your own, but even if we concede that the supermarkets are here for the long haul, there is an enormous amount they can do to reduce waste. Charitable donation of surplus is another example: 5 years ago, relatively early on in my campaign on food waste, most of the supermarkets wouldn’t even consider engaging in these projects. Now, of the major supermarkets, all but one (Morrisons) engage with them to some degree and the rate is increasing annually. We, as campaigners and consumers, can help to accelerate this trend. Just now – in the middle of writing my last post – I had to break off to speak on BBC Radio 1’s Chris Evans show on the subject of Tesco’s announcement that it is burning 5000 tonnes of meat a year as part of its drive to divert waste from landfill. Can you imagine a mainstream music radio station taking up its airtime with this subject five years ago?

    On your suggestion for spreading the message in my book, there has been overwhelming coverage in the mainstream media since publication last month; but you are absolutely right that it would be a very effective way of spreading the word to engage in the web forum world. Should you have any suggestions of particular sites, I’d be grateful. You can contact me on tjas2 – at – hotmail dot com

    I’d also be really interested to hear your first hand account of having worked in a store over Christmas time (anonymity guaranteed).

  21. John Costigane says:


    You have greater knowledge in this sphere, and more recent, compared to my supermarket experience of years ago. However, food waste is a non-issue for me since I do not produce any such waste. My focus is on waste packaging, the last component of my landfill bin waste. Zero Waste is uncomfortable for supermarkets, and others, since they profit from their use of plastic (waste). They focus on food waste as a counter to our trend, which is fair enough.

    We are promoting waste reduction towards a sustainable future. This is an essential task for consumers, like us, and we are ready for more successes as time passes. Getting side-tracked is not on the agenda.

    Keep us informed of developments, especially toward a 2000 vote petition. I promote Zero Waste on SkyNews Forum. Feel free to join-in there. I will certainly post on your topic(s) to help raise the profile of your campaign.

  22. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Tristram,

    Welcome to the site and thanks for telling us about your book. It’s great to see that John has been taking care of you and you’ve made yourself at home!

    I understand your concerns about AD; I haven’t looked into it enough to have formed a coherant opinion, but I do agree that donating food waste would be even better.

    Well, even better than that is not to create masses of food waste of course; and perhaps it’s time we get rid of the need for uniform fruit and vegetables with perfect skins and a limited girth and angle 😉

    Like John says, there are arguments FOR AD as well; because it diverts food from landfill.

    Neither option gets to the root of the problem though does it; which is that we are wasteful creatures and we need to get back to basics. With cheap food so readily available, there is no surprise it is virtually a disposable item. We no longer value food; we simply use it as fuel for our busy lifestyle and the large corporations know it.

    Can you send me a review copy of your book? I would love to read it and share more about it with our readers.

  23. Layla says:

    Hi Tristram!

    I took a look at your website & your book sounds fab!

    It is interesting that so many reviews even in newspapers that are not so traditionally ‘green’ (I think!) rave about it, so possibly it could be good reading even for the non-green & those unconvinced there is a problem at all?
    Have you had any reports indicating that?

    I agree that not making the waste would be best!
    Anaerobic Digestion as far as I know produces also Hydrogen sulfide, H2S (in trace amounts) which is not harmless & needs to be monitored. (At least that’s what says – I haven’t checked much further yet) Also, the remains must be analyzed for toxic substances & can be composted only if the analyses are good, which is not always.
    So that is why AD is (as far as I know) better than landfill or incineration, while still not ideal, & zero food waste would be best.

    If you guys have a topic on SkyNews Forum, do tell & I’ll take a look! 🙂

  24. Hi Layla, Mrs Green and John – do you mind if I respond to all these converging points together?

    First of all, I’d like to reiterate that I am not against AD. Under current EU legislation (I’ll explain that caveat in a moment), AD is one of the best technologies available for disposing of organic waste. It’s a good way of harnessing renewable energy from inedible organic matter such as banana skins, orange peels, carrot tops, tea bags and all such kitchen and catering waste. The argument I make is simply that the supermarkets have been concentrating on diverting food waste from landfill to AD and incineration, which is a small step up the waste hierarchy; whereas they have focused much less on the vastly more important task (as we all agree) of reducing or eliminating the waste of good edible food that arises in the first place.

    When I said ‘Under current EU legislation’ above, that was referring to the fact that since 2001 it has been illegal, under EU animal by-product legislation, to feed livestock with food waste from private kitchens, restaurants, and even most food manufacturing outlets. According to the calculations in my book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, it is in fact much better environmentally to feed food waste to livestock, such as omnivorous pigs and chickens, than it is to feed it into an AD plant. Much more carbon is saved, much more water and land, and it potentially relieves the problem of deforestation. That’s because since the ban on feeding food waste to livestock, European farmers have had to source their feed from elsewhere, and instead we’ve imported millions more tonnes of soy from South America where the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed to increase soy and meat production. Wherever possible therefore, food waste should be fed to livestock, and lifting the EU ban would help dispose of millions of tonnes of food waste almost immediately.

    On John’s point about packaging – that “Zero Waste is uncomfortable for supermarkets, and others, since they profit from their use of plastic (waste). They focus on food waste as a counter to our trend”, I’d be very interested to know what exactly this is referring to. I would say that for the past 4 years the food industry, the media, the public and the government (UK and EU), have all focused much more on packaging and plastic bags rather than on food waste. Take for example the Courtauld Commitment, where the UK food industry voluntarily signed up to reduce packaging waste. The additional commitment to help the public reduce food waste in their homes was vague to the point of meaninglessness. Likewise, the EU Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste, which is binding and contains no requirements regarding food waste. The major supermarkets have all made dramatic pledges to stop sending any waste to landfill; Tesco and Sainsbury’s are not far from achieving this. But they have none of them made any commitment to reduce food waste in their own companies or supply chains.

    Even when we don’t waste food in our homes, we are unavoidably contributing to food waste when we buy in any of the major supermarkets. For example, supermarkets’ cosmetic standards for fruit and vegetables (straight carrots, bendy bananas, smooth-skinned spuds) mean that up to a third of many farmers’ crops are rejected whilst still on the farm or in the pack house. That’s a system causing huge unnecessary waste, which we’re all buying into. I’m not saying this means we have to boycott shops – but positive engagement with the industry to convince them to stock all shapes and sizes of f&v would be a start.

    Mrs Green, as for a review copy of my book, I can certainly arrange for Penguin to send you a copy. Please let me know what address they should send it to. It would be good to be directly in touch so I can contact you about some major campaign events coming up later this year. From what you said in your post, I think you’re going to like the book a lot.

    I shall certainly look at the Sky News Forum. In fact Sky News are trying to get me on screen in a debate with the supermarket bosses (when I did this on Sky a few years ago, they all refused to show up and sent along a rep from the British Retail Consortium instead). So perhaps that will be a good opportunity to get some forum action going.

    All the best, Tristram

  25. Poppy says:

    @Mrs Green: @Tristram Stuart:

    Exciting stuff Mrs G! Please share more of Tristam’s words of wisdom.

    You certainly have my attention Tristram.

    Mrs G – I picked up a copy of our councils booklet “Take the waste reduction challenge” and tucked away in the back is a section called “helpful website links” and the 5th site on the list is ** 🙂

    It’s a nice shiney looking booklet, but I checked and it is printed on 100% recycled paper 😉

  26. John Costigane says:


    Looking at food waste in all its aspects is very worthwhile, including the unseen food waste caused by the simple appearance of fruit/veg. This latter activity should be eliminated as unsustainable practice.

    My comments on the food waste/plastic packaging waste issues merely describe the supermarket , and other agency, use of the blame game which diverts criticism to another area eg to councils, consumers, even government. This is standard practice particularly for supermarkets as part of their propaganda delivery. I enjoy arguing with their posters who defend plastic to the hilt. That is our chief target.

    They concentrate also on consumers’ food waste as a strategy to avoid their horrendous impact of plastic packaging waste, whether it be landfill or EfW. In reality, they are responsible for much food waste too.Again, I have conquered home food waste as part of the Zero Waste trend, mainly by avoiding supermarket packaging.

  27. Thanks Poppy…that’s something I forgot to mention, my publisher, Penguin, very kindly agreed to print my book on 100 percent recycled post-consumer-waste paper…

  28. And by the way, what were the other waste reduction sites listed on the council’s waste pamphlet? Might be relevant for other readers of this forum.

  29. amber (abmer) says:

    @Tristram Stuart:

    Hi Mrs G, Tristram and all the others taking part in this interesting debate,

    I have some additional points to make and these may be of interest to Tristram whom I am very interested in contacting as I have an active example and freedom of information act evidence to support what I am about to write:

    The reasons for getting active against waste for me personally came to a head when a waste incinerator proposal was plopped here a mile from my house in the middle of rural suffolk on a site where a Compost Plant had been running ( and polluting a local river with compost leachate, killing all aquatic wildlife for over 1.5km for which they have just been fined £12k by the environment agency -all very green wouldnt you agree!).

    Whilst in the middle of our Grass roots campaign to keep urban waste from being burned out in the middle of our rural location 12 miles from the small town of Bury St Edmunds we found out some disturbing non green facts about the highly profitable waste industry and specifically composting of waste.

    First things first since the compost plant arrived a few years ago we have suffered hanging over our properties from a smell reminicent of what can only be described as an air travel sick bag all year and in the summer we are plagued buy the lesser common house fly which leaves brown poo marks all over our white ceilings and walls etc. A call to complain to the Environment Agency who licences these plants will soon uncover that this smell is expected when a plant is located in your neighbourhood and its common to get complaints re flies and smell.

    During our investigations as to what made our area so popular with the “Waste Industry” and why it was choosing to lump it all on us here in Suffolk (one of the top recycling counties in the UK – so our county council proclaims anyway!). We discovered the following:

    In quarter 2 of this year 2009, only 7% of the waste composted on the old Airfield near my house was infact from the county of SUFFOLK. The rest of the “green waste” we found out was mostly food waste was being delivered in 40-30 tonne tippers from the following UK locations: Warwickshire, Hounslow Borough Council & West London, Essex and believe it or not BLACKPOOL UNITARY AUTHORITIES FOOD WASTE SCHEME!!!!! Dont take this the wrong way but here in Mid Suffolk District Council we have to pay for compost bins £40 extra if you want one a year!! We dont even have a food waste bin scheme either!! Most of us down here are Green – infact the Green Party came 2nd this year in our Division for County Elections hence for us its a bit of a sick joke for us having to deal with and smell everyone elses crap to be perfectly honest!!

    Tristram – were you aware that due to the fact that contracts to compost/ digest etc. are thrown open to a bidding process, waste which could have been composted or digested locally can now be sent on a 6 hour journey from one side of the UK to another more rural location where they assume less people will complain about the pungent/sickly stench???? I was personally shocked about the information we got back from the Environment Agency when we put in our Freedom of Info request.

    We have all the paperwork here and would be more than happy to send it to you should you ever want to expose this environmental disgrace in your next book – I feel that it needs exposing for sure.

    I think the whole thing stinks and that’s not just because I currently am working from home with my windows open!!

    The British public must be made aware that what they are scraping into their foodwaste bins may take a trip of over 200 miles to be dealt with in the “greenest possible way”. I think they would realise that its just one big profitable scandal for those bidding for contracts.

    A foot note on our incinerator campaign – the most recent news is that due to public opposition and the massive support for our campaign from local people in our location it is being suggested that we are taken off the list of Incinerator sites. Sadly for other Suffolk Communities such as Blakenham near Ipswich, they have devastating news that two incinerators could be built there including an ill advised PFI municipal incinerator. We now fear that our site will be given permission for a 150k tonne Biodigester which will be able to digest waste from anywhere in the UK.

    If only the truth about the waste Industry was known and that waste that is created for example in Urban Coventry is tranported to a rural village in Suffolk to be digested to create a minimal addition to the energy crisis, I think the British Public would be disgusted.

    Sadly I feel waste in the hands of private enterprise leads to this problem of “waste miles” and that it would be more appropriate that waste was digested/composted in a location close to sources so that it was a genuine green effort.

    We are living in a world where Media and PR firms cloak the truth on green issues which in turn tars genuinely green thinking with the same brush.

  30. Mrs Green says:

    @amber (abmer): Hi amber, thank you so much for taking the time and energy to share all your research with us here, on the site. We value and appreciate greatly you sharing this with us. I will contact Tristram and ask him to contact you. You’ve clearly unearthed some very concerning information and I’m sorry that you are enduring this in your beautiful part of the world. It makes for very sad reading.

  31. Dear Amber,

    Thank you for sharing your very unpleasant sounding (smelling?) experiences. You probably saw in my book where I address the issue of odour control for food waste recycling sites. Odour control has been one of the biggest challenges for food waste recycling, particularly when plants are near to homes. The good news is that plants can now be constructed so that the smelly odours are well controlled and no-one has to suffer. Certainly well-managed sites smell a great deal less than landfill sites, which is of course where much of the waste we produce would end up if it wasn’t recycled (or incinerated). It sounds like the one near your home had some extremely bad environmental practices: nitrogen rich leachate has to be controlled from composting sites just as it does from landfill sites (where the leachate from rotting food waste is blended with even more noxious contaminants in the other rubbish). My suspicion is – and this certainly something that could be verified with your local council – that if a new biodigester is built on the same site, it will employ the latest designs in odour control. Biodigesters also have the advantage that the decomposition necessarily occurs within a sealed tank and the gas (methane) is collected and burnt to produce renewable energy. That means the food waste can be recycled without creating swarms of flies or stinks. Certainly the biodigester could be a relatively good option, when the alternative is landfill or incineration. Of course – if everyone stopped throwing away so much stuff that would help too! Home composting is another alternative, and as you say local compost centres offer another alternative. For people living in urban centres home composting is often impossible; local centres can be created, but regional centres – while perhaps not the very best thing – are at least a good deal better than regional landfills and the like.

    The other issue you raise is heart-breaking because on the surface it looks like it means that recycling food waste just adds to food miles. This is a very unfortunate result of the way in which the UK has decided to implement recycling and waste diversion. Instead of having central government dictate how every district should recycle their waste, they devolved the power of waste management to the local councils, so that local councils could decide for themselves how best to achieve recycling targets. Sadly, this means that one council who introduces a food waste collection system might find that there are no food waste recycling plants near to their district, so they have to go further afield to recycle all that food waste they are collecting. However, I think we can reasonably hope that this is mainly a short-lived phase happening during the infancy of the food waste recycling system. When more food waste recycling plants like biodigesters are built (as they are being rapidly due to government funding), and more councils collect food waste separately, each area will have local capacity for recycling their food waste, so there won’t be the need to travel those long distances. The enormous costs of transporting low-value waste over many miles will discourage companies and councils from incurring those costs if they can possibly avoid it. Indeed, as the examples I write about in my book suggest, you can have well-managed biodigesters (where odour is well controlled) right next to towns and cities so the waste goes much less far than it otherwise would go to reach a landfill site. Having said all this, I do share your concerns about private investment in public waste services, because it really can look like the private investors need a guaranteed supply of waste materials in order to get the confidence to invest money in processing it. It seems wrong to guarantee the supply of waste when the main aim to to try and eliminate waste! And indeed, the lack of guaranteed supply is one of the main things that has inhibited the private sector from investing in food waste recycling and why the government is having to offer such attractive fiscal incentives to get it to. As I mention in my book, this means there is a strong case for government to build this recycling infrastructure and manage it in the interests of the public, who will benefit from the environmental improvement and the avoidance of the fines of up to £1 million every day which could otherwise be imposed on the UK for failing to meet our landfill reduction targets.

    The proposed 150,000 tonne/yr plant you mention is, admittedly, extremely big, and it will also doubtless be taking commercial as well as domestic organic waste, and possibly animal slurries. One thing I would say is that as it would be much better if more food waste (of an appropriate type) was recycled as livestock feed which is more remunerative and environmentally beneficial than any digestion or composting process. Read more in the book.

    This won’t get rid of your stinks, but I hope it will give you a glimmer of hope that the future isn’t bound to be so smelly – and certainly not as polluting as the landfill era we’re trying to dig our way out of.

    Best wishes, Tristram

  32. Aaron says:

    @Tristram Stuart: Can you provide evidence that up to a third of farmers produce is wasted as it fails to meet quality standards. Being a farmer myself I am sure that firstly the waste is not that high as food that doesn’t meet production standards is ultimately bought by food processors for use in ready meals and the likes. Secondly any food that does not meet quality and isn’t sent to a food processor will ultimately be composted locally on farm and spread back onto the fields as an organic manure. Thus reducing the need for highly carbon rich inorganic fertiliser.

    The exception to this would be potato waste as the waste is likely to contain the highly damaging (to future crops) blight fungus spores. Waste potatoes are commonly left to rot on farm whilst being treated with fungicides before being spread on land not used for growing potatoes

  33. Hi Aaron,

    Thanks for your informative comment where you outline the various outlets open to farmers for selling produce that does not meet supermarket cosmetic standards. I discuss these secondary markets – food processors, animal feed, and in-field composting – in much more detail in my book (Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal), so do please have a look there and let me know if you think there is anything unrepresentative; it’s always good to have more inputs.

    There has not been enough large-scale research on farms to assert with any degree of confidence what proportion of produce overall is wasted. Nowhere do I say that a third of produce overall is wasted, though a Soil Association study estimated that between 25 and 40 per cent of most British-grown fruit and vegetable crops are rejected by the supermarkets and other government-backed studies have found similar levels.

    In the blog post above – to which I think you are referring – I say that “up to a third of many farmers’ crops are rejected whilst still on the farm or in the pack house.” The first thing to note is that the figure is referring to the quantity that is rejected by retailers, some of which, as you point out, may then be absorbed by secondary markets; the second thing to note is that I say ‘many farmers’ crops’ because it’s very variable and depends on the crop and on conditions in any individual year. In my experience, some farmers suffer rejection levels significantly lower, and some much higher. In some cases, entire crops are rejected on very slight grounds, such as peas not meeting sweetness tests, or salad and spinach having minor cosmetic defects. Despite being good to eat, farmers are often forced to leave 100% of these crops to rot in the field. Even if there are willing buyers out there, the farmers often have an exclusive supply contract with their customers (e.g. packers, manufacturers or supermarkets) and anything their customer doesn’t want cannot be sold to alternative buyers.

    However, even after the secondary markets are taken into account, I have visited representative farms supplying the major retailers where around a third of the harvest overall is indeed failing to reach a market for human consumption including through the secondary markets you mention. This is through a combination of factors, the most important of which is cosmetic standards. Another major factor is the widespread practice of ‘over-planting’ which has been introduced in response to the supermarkets’ intolerant stance towards farmers who fail to meet the supermarkets’ demands. Farmers regularly aim to grow more of a crop than they are contracted to supply to their supermarket customers in order to avoid failing to produce the amount they are contracted to supply. Failure on this score can result in the farmer either being penalised by their customer, or indeed can risk losing the contract altogether with consequent severe damage to or even total loss of their business. Thus, some farmers grow around 25% more of their crop than they are contracted to supply and an average of half of this surplus never gets harvested and is instead ploughed straight back into the land. These figures are based on case studies of UK growers of fresh produce, and I have received reports of over-planting levels of up to 40% being standard practice for other crops. These figures are also backed up by personnel at the National Farmers Union with whom I am in constant dialogue.

    If it were the case that all supermarket cosmetic rejects were absorbed by processors of ready meals, fruit juices, soups etc then of course, this would not be the wasteful situation I am describing. However, the supermarket cosmetic standards are so unnecessarily high and the quantity of rejected produce consequently so great that these secondary markets are insufficient to absorb all the rejected produce. This means that many farmers cannot sell all their edible produce and vast quantities of it are either left in the fields to rot, composted, or fed to animals, despite being good quality food. Using quality human food as animal feed or compost recuperates only a tiny proportion of its value. It makes no sense to pour money, water, fossil fuels, fertilizer, land and other resources into producing food for it then to be turned into very low-value compost or animal feed. It is therefore right to call this system horrendously wasteful.

    As most farmers I have spoken to on this subject confirm, this is a major loss of the crops they work year-round to produce, a loss of income, and it means we’re importing produce even whilst throwing away tonnes of the same produce on our farms. Encouraging supermarkets to stock more wonky fruit and vegetables and encouraging consumers to buy them would mean that farmers would be able to sell a greater proportion of their crops, and it would reduce the unsustainable wastefulness of the food supply. It’s business-friendly, as well as being environmentally and socially more sustainable.

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