Debate over impact of free caddy liners on recycling

SPECIAL REPORT: The debate over whether the removal of free caddy liners for food waste bins reduces resident participation continues to drag on, as Barbora Vaclavova reports. 

Some have argued that stopping the free supply of caddy liners might lead to a decrease in participation

Concerns have been raised that local authorities stopping the free supply of food caddy liners might lead to a decrease in household participation.

Others, particularly those who have taken away free liners, say the move has little effect.

The debate has emerged again after Wokingham borough council decided to stop providing their residents with free single-use plastic liners due to financial pressures, with the move delivering £120,000 of savings (see letsrecycle.com story).

Several opposition councillors expressed concerns that stopping the supply of liners could lead to a drop in the volume of food waste collected, which might hinder the local authority in achieving the 70% target by 2030.

The council disputed these concerns, claiming it will undertake a “strong communications campaign” to highlight the issue of food waste in residual waste.

Research

However, research published by resources charity WRAP suggested that participation would be “significantly affected” if supplies of free liners were removed and residents were then required to purchase liners from retail outlets.

It also noted that “households without an ongoing or adequate liner supply tended to stop participating with subsequent difficulties in re-recruiting these households onto the scheme later”.

The exact approach to caddy liners differs between councils, some provide liners free of charge, some offer them at a subsidised rate, and some don’t provide them at all. Jenny Grant, head of organics and natural capital at the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), told letsrecycle.com that while AD operators may be concerned about any potential impact on tonnages, it will really depend on the system in place.

Jenny Grant said the impact on recycling depends hugely on the system

“I’ve had feedback from members who have seen a reduction in participation rates once free liners ran out but it’s hard to know how widespread this is or could be,” she added.

Ms Grant continued that the REA feels that provision of liners to households is an important element of maximising participation rates in food waste collections. She noted that, in line with REA policy, these should be certified as compostable to minimise contamination with non-biodegradable plastic.

The association also supports the use of compostable paper liners which may be suitable for processing in AD, Ms Grant added.

She said these could be considered as part of a solution, at least in the short term whilst manufacturers look to develop “more digestible-compostable ones that handle well in pre-treatment”.

Problem

The issue of contamination was also brought up by Grant Keenan, managing director of Keenan Recycling. He reasoned that if residents were to source their own liners, contamination is more likely.

AD operators could face issues with reduced tonnages and increased contamination from plastic bags (picture: Shutterstock)

“I think it will be a real problem for the industry, as participation levels will drop and contamination of plastic from bags will enter the system, potentially ending up on farmers’ fields,” Mr Keenan said.

Newspaper

The contrasting opinions were further underlined by research published by the Frontiers in Sustainability journal yesterday (3 November), which argued that AD plants are “not optimised to degrade compostable plastics” seen in caddy liners.

The document explained that they are generally treated as a contaminant and are removed and sent to landfill or incinerated.

It suggested that putting local authority food waste in newspaper would be better but nevertheless highlighted the environmental benefit of recycling food waste regardless of the material it is presented in.

Merton

Merton council, which rolled out its food waste collection service in 2014, provided residents with free caddy liners to start with. However, the local authority stopped the supply in 2015.

When asked whether there was a drop in participation following the decision, a spokesperson for Merton council told letsrecycle.com: “The council took the decision to stop providing free food waste caddy liners to residents over five years ago.

“Between 2017 and 2021 Merton Council has seen a 208% increase in food waste tonnage. This clear behaviour change has been achieved through active communication, incentivising residents to recycle their food, and service changes.”

They added that instead, residents are encouraged “to line their caddy with newspaper or purchase compostable liners at cost from Merton libraries”.

Defra

The government’s stance on free caddy liners was set out by Defra in its consultation on consistent collections in England, though nothing was mandated.

The department said: “We continue to promote the use of caddy liners by householders in England and will consider guidance recommending that these should be provided as part of the service.”

It added that caddy liners help to increase yield and improve cost effectiveness of a separate food waste collection service.

In terms of estimated costs, free caddy liners cost around 50p per household per annum start-up costs and £1.50 per household per annum ongoing costs.

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