Coalition calls for “compost revolution” to avert looming waste crisis

A group of leading experts including horticulturists, academics, retailers, trade associations and charities are calling for a radical rethink of how we handle organic waste in the UK.

UK households produce a staggering 14 million tonnes of food and green waste every year. An estimated 2 million more tonnes will need to be processed by local authorities when new anticipated mandatory food waste collections start in 2024.

However, the experts warn a crisis is on the horizon unless urgent action is taken to tackle contamination and infrastructure issues.

Enrich the Earth, a new movement of diverse organisations including the National Trust, RHS, Suez and the Horticultural Trade Association, launch a manifesto calling for an urgent “compost revolution” to galvanise the public and achieve two clear goals:

  • To increase the proportion of households composting at home from 33% to 50% - this would prevent 1,000,000 tonnes of waste needing to be processed by local authorities each year.
  • To decrease levels of contamination in our garden and food waste bins - this is reaching 20% in some areas and significantly reduces the potential of the material to be used on farms and in people’s gardens. The UK organics recycling sector incurs annual costs of around £50M due to removal and disposal of over 350,000 tonnes of plastic.

The document identifies several issues that need addressing:

  • The UK currently doesn’t have enough facilities in the right places, close to the source, to process this material. Food waste is heavy and of low value - transporting it long distances is costly and has a high environmental impact.
  • Massive investment is needed to build anaerobic digesters across the country, but this won’t happen until the legislation is passed and this will take time, with no clear plan as to what will happen in the meantime.
  • Without urgently addressing contamination levels there is a risk the extra 2 million tonnes of food waste collected is worthless and an environmental burden.
  • At the same time, we urgently need to find sustainable alternativesto the 965,000 cubic meters of peat used in horticulture every year. Organic waste might be able to replace up to 30% of the peat used – however this is only possible if contamination is reduced.

A ground-breaking trial, the first of its kind at this scale, launches in the North East today and aims to maximise the value of compost from green waste collected from households across the region. Garden centres, community gardening groups, restaurants and universities will also be involved in a concerted effort to compost garden waste and non-animal byproduct food scraps more, use wormeries and reduce contamination in organic waste collections. Learnings will be openly shared with the aim of rolling out the trial across the country.

As the UK moves away from using peat, the gardening industry will need to find a range of different materials which are more sustainable, affordable and equally effective as a growing media. One of the replacement materials could be organic waste and the learnings from the North East trial will help highlight what new steps are needed and demonstrate what is feasible and beneficial.

Enrich the Earth has been brought together by new environmental innovator Sizzle. Founder of Sizzle Trewin Restorick said: “The introduction of mandatory food collections is welcome but it’s a waste of time if there is no clear plan from government as to what will happen with the waste collected. Radical systemic change is needed and so is a focus on making better use of our waste at home. Composting our grass and hedge clippings and fruit and veg scraps is a great place to start and it’s an immediate step we can all take to fight climate change and enrich our soil.

According to the 2021 Census, almost nine in ten people have access to a garden in the UK but our polling suggests only a third of us make our own compost, so we believe there is a huge opportunity here.  We’re especially keen for “reluctant” composters to have a go for the first time – it’s surprisingly easy, you get nutrient-rich gold for your garden and it’s free!”

Prof Alistair Griffiths, Director of Science & Collections at RHS said: “The RHS is excited to be part of this project which aims to help towards reversing the climate and biodiversity crises. Peatlands store twice the amount of carbon than all the land on earth and can store this carbon for thousands of years. Peatlands are home to unique wildlife and act like big sponges to reduce flash flooding during extreme weather events - linked to climate change.

“The Royal Horticultural Society is already 98% peat free and aims to be 100% peat free, including propagation, retail and shows by the end of 2025. The RHS composts all its green waste and uses it to make its gardens bloom.

“Composting is a great way to empower gardeners to take climate positive actions to help tackle the climate crisis. If every gardener gets composting, they will free up key peat-free materials (bark, coir and wood fibre) for the horticulture industry. This in turn helps industry to accelerate their transition to peat free so our nation can grow and enjoy healthy peat free plants.”

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