A decade ago, Ludlow was one of the country’s champions of food waste recycling. Caddies were collected weekly from the doorstep of homes and local businesses. This was processed in the biodigester on Coder Road creating gas and compost. This was an experimental project but it was cutting edge. So much so, I travelled from Oxfordshire just to view the facility. It is now closed.
Now the government is saying that we must take food waste seriously. It says weekly food waste should be collected and biodigested. It doesn’t want councils to continue composting in open bins as we do in Shropshire.
This is an ideal opportunity to upgrade and reopen Ludlow’s pioneering biodigester.
Recycling statistics are initially impressive. Back at the turn of the millennium, nine in every ten tonnes of household waste collected by councils in England was destined for landfill or incineration. Driven by punitive landfills taxes more than their concern for the environment, councils began to take recycling seriously. By 2013, around 55% of waste was landfilled or incinerated. But since then recycling rates have plateaued. There has been no overall improvement. Nationally and locally, recycling rates are falling.
In 2017/18, household recycling in England fell by 0.3%. That might not sound much of a drop but it amounts to an extra 700,000 tonnes of waste to landfill and incineration. Shropshire Council’s recycling rate went down by 0.7% over the same period. That means that an extra 4,800 tonnes of waste were sent for incineration.
Recycling is not a cheap business. In 2017-18, councils in England spent £3.6 billion on waste collection, recycling and disposal. Shropshire alone spent £32.3 million.
The government’s Waste and Resources Strategy published in mid-December pledges to “end the economic, environmental and moral scandal that is food waste.” It pledges, subject to consultation, to ensure that every household and many businesses have a weekly separate food waste collection. This is one of several proposals on food waste designed to tackle the estimated 10 million tonnes of food and drink that is wasted after it leaves the farm gate every year. That waste could be worth around £20 billion.
Could we implement weekly collections in Shropshire if the government demanded them? We should because our current food waste system makes little environmental sense.
Food and garden waste are collected together in green bins in the former South Shropshire, North Shropshire and Shrewsbury districts. The material is processed at an unsealed in-vessel composting plant allowing methane from decomposition to escape into the atmosphere. Methane is around 30 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2.
In the former Oswestry and Bridgnorth districts only garden waste is collected. This is processed in open compost bins. Food waste is not collected. It is incinerated along with other waste in the black bins. Incineration emits more CO2 than gas fuelled power stations.
We need to treat food waste more seriously in Shropshire. Research shows that separate food waste collections lead to higher yields of food waste than if it is mixed with garden waste. It also leads to lower emissions.
It will be a challenge to move to weekly collections in Shropshire but I am sure that it can be done. The government is promising money to help.
But where will the food waste be processed?
An obvious candidate is Ludlow’s redundant biodigester on Coder Road. The biodigester got underway in 2006. I recall driving from Oxfordshire a couple of years later to visit the then state of the art environmental technology in preparation for an interview on BBC Radio Oxford. Ludlow was one of the main areas for innovation in biodigestion.
The biodigester was shut down in 2012 with the backing of two former unitary councillors for Ludlow. This was at a point when Shropshire Council’s leadership was sceptical of climate change. An attempt to get the biodigester back into operation in 2013 failed.
The biodigester was experimental. But it remains a site and structure than can be upgraded to process food waste from across the south of the county.
We should make the most of the opportunity provided by the government’s Waste and Resources Strategy to bring the unused Ludlow biodigester back into use to generate compost and methane gas.
Shropshire Council has closed the biodigester. It has closed the recycling centre next door on Coder Road. It is planning to scrap recycling bring banks here and across the county. Proper collection of food waste is an ideal opportunity to bring recycling facilities back to South Shropshire. It will promote the environment, boost jobs in Ludlow and help reinstate our reputation as a centre for innovation in biodigestion. The Coder Road facility will need to be extensively upgraded but we deserve some investment in Ludlow.
We don’t need to wait for the government’s new strategy to come into force. We should get on with the job of protecting the environment and once again be the country’s champion of food waste recycling. It is time to take recycling food waste seriously and reopen Ludlow’s biodigester as a flagship facility Shropshire can be proud of.