$10 billion dollars. That's how much Australians are wasting each year by throwing out unwanted food, according to the 2017 RaboDirect Financial Health Barometer released in October, and the average household chucks 14% of food bought.
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While the report is based on a survey of only a small sample of the population - 2300 people - there are numerous other figures from government about just how dire the situation is. For instance, the federal government has noted that 20% of purchased food ends up in the bin and this is only household waste. Over in the commercial and industrial sector, about three million tonnes of food is wasted annually, costing $10.5 billion in waste disposal charges.

No wonder many a council have ranked food waste a priority material to deal with and earlier this year, the federal government stepped in, holding a roundtable discussion with industry and community leaders on how to reduce the nation's food waste by 50% by 2030.

Over in the City of Boroondara, in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, food and organic waste is the main driver of Council's new 2017-2022 waste strategy. In the December/January issue of Inside Waste, Council's coordinator of waste management, Natasza Purser, said the city sends about 31% of food waste to landfill - most of it avoidable - making it a compelling reason to tackle the waste stream and achieve higher diversion.

While the strategy is not overly prescriptive, it is crystal clear on its aim to divert a large proportion of food waste from landfill in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, extend the life of the region's landfills, reduce the cost incurred by paying the landfill levy, and processing the material into resources that can go back into the soil.

Purser is passionate about food waste diversion and has played a key role in a food waste collection service pilot in the UK - a model that is today used by more than 50% of the country's councils - as well as driving the introduction of a food organics garden organics (FOGO) service last year in Bendigo, 150km north west of Melbourne, which has to date diverted 10,000 tonnes of the waste stream from landfill.

While Purser will bring her learnings to the table in Boroondara, Council will also embark on an investigation into the practicalities of various food waste diversion and collection methods to determine the best solution for Boroondara.

"One of the things I've learnt as food waste services have evolved over the last 15 years is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all model. We do have to look at each case individually and work out what would work best for the residents and our infrastructure, as well as the disposal options we have that would suit our transport times," Purser said.

"So, Council will be doing feasibility studies. We will have a look at the bin collection frequencies to make sure we've got the correct suite of services in place and if we do introduce a new service, we will determine what that looks like - whether it's going to be food and garden waste in the same bin or some other model.

"Council would also need to provide organics bins to properties that don't currently have one. We've got about 42,000 people already on the garden organics service but Boroondara has around 66,000 tenements, so there's a little bit of a gap to cover. We may also look at joining regional procurement for disposal via the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG) or we could go out to tender on our own."

There may not be a one-size-fits-all approach but Purser acknowledged that there are common behaviours and perceptions among residents both here and overseas.

"I learned quite early on in the UK project that people had a poor perception about collecting kitchen waste separately. They thought it was going to be smelly and dirty and we also see these perceived barriers in Australia. However, they can be quite successfully overcome once people start to use the system," Purser said.

"You'll need good engagement and education and really work with people on what their ‘why' is - why do they want to engage with that service? Do they want to save money or go shopping less? Or do they want to do something good for the environment? We just have to work that out, get them on board and get past those barriers. That is why it is key that we do the engagement and education piece properly at the beginning and not try to rush things into place. We need to give ourselves time to properly engage with the community about what they think might work for them and what their concerns might be so we can get a model that really works."

Thus, it is unsurprising that while food waste is Council's top priority in its waste strategy, waste education comes a close second.

Later down the track, Council will also need to re-evaluate its infrastructure and identify areas of improvement at its depots to complement its food and organic waste diversion efforts. Early discussions have already begun and Council will work with the MWRRG to look at the larger pieces of infrastructure required to manage disposal through the latter's strategic procurement exercises.

"There are two procurement exercises going on at the moment and I think these facilities will be able to start accepting FOGO as early as 2018. It is looking like the infrastructure will be there and aligned nicely with what we want to do but also what other councils are looking at doing," Purser said.

For now, Council has its work cut out for it in having to address the bin sizes and pricing structures, and determining the effects these changes may have on people and their service preferences.

"I view food waste and its diversion as a circular and closed loop concept. As councils, we may tend to think that providing a kerbside service is the panacea but I think there are few more strands than that. Education and engagement are really key because if we can reduce waste at source, then there will be better value in terms of how we spend ratepayers' money as well," Purser concluded.

Also featured in the December/January issue of Inside Waste, now ready for download:

  • The topics that matter: In August, Inside Waste reached out to the industry to get a feel for the topics that matter to you in your day-to-day operations. Here are the results.
  • CoR and the waste sector: Holding Redlich's Nathan Cecil offers advice on compliance obligations as Chain of Responsibility laws hot up.  
  • Keeping plastic as plastic: Plastic Forests, which began as a "secret start-up", is taking recycling by storm and has designed a recycling plant that can process more than 1000kg of contaminated plastic film an hour. The system is fascinating to say the least. For one, it does not use water in its process.