Is waste incineration a dirty word?

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Over the past few years there has been a consistent effort to reduce, reuse and recycle to stop waste going to landfill and to reduce the levels of food being… well, wasted. The business and environmental reasons for doing so are incredibly strong. According to WRAP (Waste and Resource Action Programme) in the UK alone we waste £17 billion of food per year. Or to put it another way for every 2 tonnes of food eaten, we throw away 1 tonne of food.

To tackle this, WRAP has launched its most ambitious project to date – Courtauld 2025 with the objective of reducing food waste by 20% in ten years.

Specifically the Courtauld 2025 commitment states:

  • 20% reduction in food & drink waste arising in the UK
  • 20% reduction in the green house gas intensity of food & drink consumed in the UK
  • A reduction in impact associated with water use in the supply chain

With reduction of waste high on the agenda we also need to consider how do we dispose of so much waste? The Waste hierarchy shows that incineration with and without energy reclamation are amongst the least desired methods for disposing of food waste.

This leaves us with the question; is waste incineration a dirty word?

Why do we incinerate food waste? Surely there are better options? Can’t the food be redistributed via food banks? Or diverted to become animal feed?

It is possible to prevent some of the food waste. There is already some excellent work throughout the industry to redirect food fit for human consumption to people that need it. When appropriate food waste is going to facilities that produce animal feed and fertilisers; this isn’t always an appropriate solution – I am sure you remember the BSE outbreak? If not, BSE or mad cow disease was spread through British herds after they were fed the remains of sheep infected with Scrapie, a closely related brain-wasting disease. This resulted in a number of deaths from variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease contracted by people that ate meat from infected cattle.

That is why food waste is going to incineration.

Incineration is used to protect people from contaminated foods; particularly if the food contains ABP (Animal By-products).

ABP falls into 3 categories, the high risk Categories 1 & 2 ABP and the relatively low risk Category 3 ABP. International Catering Waste is classified as Category 1 ABP; this reflects the high risk posed to the local environment from disease and pests coming from outside of the EU.

There is also the issue of meat crime – most recently highlighted with the horse meat scandal in 2013. Whilst I’m not personally against eating horse meat, I am not keen on eating meat where the source isn’t known and neither are any medical issues and or treatments the animal may have had before entering the food chain. Whilst 2013 may feel long ago, meat crime is still very much a problem.

Meat Crime is Still Widespread

The EWCF (European Working-Community for Food-Inspection and Consumer Protection) reported on a 16 month investigation which revealed a:

“tapestry of criminal activity across the meat industry including substitution, the use of undeclared mechanically separated meat, inadequate and incorrect labelling and deception around meat quantities.”

Seven consumer groups across the EU carried out tests on meats sold in countries between April 2014 and August 2015. Consumer group Which published a report that found 40% of lamb takeaways were contaminated with other meats with some containing no lamb at all. Reports from other consumer groups from across the EU reflect the findings of Which and the EWCF’s conclusion.

It is in the general public’s best interest that any meat suspected of being a result of meat crime should go to incineration – other options are simply too risky.

Waste Incineration – Total Destruction

To destroy animal by-products and any micro-organisms incinerators operate at temperatures in excess of 1,000 oC. This is a very important point when you consider incineration is a process that helps to prevent disease outbreaks. In the 2001 foot & mouth outbreak, which devastated the UK farming industry, there were pyres of dead cattle being burnt in the fields and concern was expressed that this could spread the disease further afield.

Burial was also considered, but was used only in limited circumstances to protect ground water supplies. The solution was to create a processing hierarchy; incineration and rendering ranked first, licensed landfill next, followed by mass burning on the farm.

Incineration has its place

When you consider public safety incineration is a good option for destroying food waste.

The benefits gained from protecting the general public from contaminated products, the latest filtering technology and waste to energy suggest that incineration isn’t such a dirty word after all.


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