Manufacturers and retailers should look to anaerobic digestion to turn their waste into energy, says Bevelery Parrish

Waste has been high on the food industry agenda for some time and we are all familiar with initiatives from government departments, such as 'zero waste'.

There appears to be a softening of this approach under the coalition, with zero waste seen as an aspiration rather than an absolute target. But the government has also been clear about its desire to promote anaerobic digestion as a preferred energy-from-waste process, which implies it will focus on the diversion of food waste from landfill. It is currently estimated that about 17 million tonnes of food waste are still disposed of every year, much of it ending up in landfill.

For the food industry, the primary focus has been on initiatives such as the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement that has combined the efforts of retailers, manufacturers and Wrap to reduce unnecessary packaging and food waste. Innovative packaging, light-weighting, concentrated products, improved recyclability, portion control and consumer campaigns have all made a difference.

Food manufacturers and retailers can directly affect this by dealing with their own waste. While many have worked to reuse, recycle and to ensure it becomes a useful by-product, residual waste is inevitable.

Some are embracing on-site waste management and considering small-scale energy from waste. For example, RF Brookes, an M&S supplier in Newport, is building a £5m anaerobic digester to supply energy.

This approach reduces the burden of waste management costs, a considerable benefit given that landfill tax is set to rise to £80 per tonne in 2014. There is also the prospect of energy being delivered back to the facility. And payback periods are fast reducing they can even work on a relatively small scale (1,000 tonnes-plus). There are also government incentives to consider, which support renewable energy production.

Why not combine wastes from other sites to improve economies of scale? Why not deal with waste on-site? Modern anaerobic digestion facilities are fully enclosed, do not smell and look like any other process kit. Food for thought?

Beverley Parrish is waste sector director of WSP UK.