How collecting food waste could slow climate change – and save us money

Cleaning up. Image: Getty.

Food waste is a global problem, and one that’s driving climate change. Here in the UK, the country’s biodegradable waste goes to a landfill, where it breaks down to produce methane, a gas that is roughly 30 times as bad as carbon dioxide.

And yet there’s a simple solution. With the exception of garden waste, which often contains lignin from woody matter, all biodegradable materials, including much of our food waste, could instead be processed in anaerobic digesters. This decomposition in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen produces biogas, which can then be used to generate heat and electricity.

This is more or less the same process that takes place in landfill sites, except that the biogas can’t escape from an anaerobic digester as it can from landfill – meaning the breakdown of the organic matter takes place in an environment that is enclosed and controlled.

The result is biogas consisting of 60 per cent methane and 40 per cent carbon dioxide, which can be burnt in order to generate heat or used as a fuel for vehicles. It could also be used to generate electricity after the biogas has been scrubbed, which can then either power the anaerobic digester or be exported to the national grid. The process also produces digestate, a solid and liquid residue that can be returned to farmland as a soil conditioner. The amount of biogas and the quality of digestate varies according to what feedstock is used in the digester.

This process is already widely used both across Europe – particularly in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Austria – and elsewhere globally, particularly in India and Thailand. What's more, this move towards separate food waste collection is already happening in countries outside the UK, and its momentum is increasing according to the World Biogas Association. Already, major cities, including New York, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Auckland, San Francisco, Mexico City and many others are regularly collecting food waste from their citizens. The decisions to do so are usually taken at city level, but enabling legislation from national governments assist in this.


At present the UK is lagging behind. Only 109 local authorities in England, about 33 per cent of the total number, collect food waste as of May 2018, according to the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA). Yet making a separate food waste collection mandatory across the UK and running the food waste through anaerobic digesters, could supply enough biogas to generate 36 per cent of UK electricity, according to a 2007 Friends of the Earth report. This percentage could be increased again if food waste from restaurants, cafeteria and retailers was also collected. 

ADBA’s research also suggests that universal separate household food waste collections would trigger the construction of around 80 new anaerobic digester plants for food waste processing. This would add an extra 187 megawatts equivalent (MWe) of capacity, powering 285,000 extra homes – representing all the homes in a city the size of Glasgow. Data from WRAP suggests that further food waste collection from businesses would add around a further 10 per cent, depending on the quality of the feedstock collected and what exemptions were applied (for example, it might only apply to businesses collecting more than 50 kilograms per week or the lower threshold of 5kg).

A 38 per cent improvement in food waste collection from flats in Ealing alone could generate £26,000 of annual savings for the London borough, £28,000 in revenue for a local anaerobic digester (based on electricity sales to the national grid) and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions of around 270 tonnes, found Londoners Lab, a collaborative project consisting of Greater London Authority, University College London, Ferrovial Services Centre of Excellence for Cities and Future Cities Catapult.

ADBA has been campaigning on this issue for a while, but the good news is that the government finally signalled its intention to introduce separate food waste collections in its forthcoming Resources & Waste Strategy, which will ensure that all homes and suitable businesses in England will have access to food waste collections by 2023. The next step, following the government announcement, is a consultation, but it is widely acknowledged that additional funding would be needed by local authorities to achieve this, as the business case isn’t currently strong enough.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.