Auckland's new food-scraps collection misses huge opportunities, say critics

August 28, 2023

Auckland's new food-scraps collection misses huge opportunities, say critics

Sophie Todd, of Regeneration Army, holds a composting workshop. Photo: supplied

Auckland’s new food-scraps system has already seen tonnes of organic waste diverted from landfill, but some working in the local composting sector say it is a missed opportunity and even "massive greenwashing".

The kerbside collection, which has seen 250,000 bins delivered to city households so far, uses the return trips of trucks delivering aggregate waste to Auckland.

The trucks take Auckland food scraps to an anaerobic digestion plant in Reparoa, a journey of more than 200km.

Critics say the kerbside rollout is threatening the local-composting business model, with some residents not wanting to pay for another service when they are already paying for the kerbside collection.

Sophie Todd, founder of Regeneration Army, a food-scraps collection and composting business which collects food scraps from residents and businesses across Auckland, told TWN: “It’s killed our whole income stream.”

Residents cannot opt out of the kerbside collection, which costs each property $77.44 a year.

“It’s been a real shame to lose heaps of our residential customers because even if they choose to still keep composting with us, they still have to pay for it.”

Auckland's huge food dump

However, Suzanne Kendrick, EcoMatters Environment Trust's community waste project manager, said it was about social good and there were many council services people didn't use.

“I don’t have a dog, and I don’t begrudge people dog-walking areas," she said.

According to Kendrick, only a small percentage of Aucklanders actually compost at home, meaning many were putting food scraps into their general rubbish.

“If you’re already a composter, you’re actually in a tiny percentage of the city’s residents that do compost food."

She said 35 to 40 per cent of the city's landfill-bound rubbish was food waste.

While she wished everyone would compost, it just wasn’t the case, and the amount of food waste generated required a big solution.

Anaerobic digestion also dealt with meat scraps, which could not be composted, she said.

Parul Sood, Auckland Council’s general manager of waste solutions, said she saw kerbside collection as the last resort in the food waste hierarchy.

She said Aucklanders should focus on reducing waste and composting at home if they could.

Composting definitely had its place but people tended to put the wrong items in the collection and that contaminated the end product.

Factors that led to the decision to use the Reparoa plant included plastic contamination, odour, volume of material and the ability to take other organic materials from commercial sources.

According to the council, biogas produced by the AD is captured and converted into renewable electricity, renewable CO2, heat and biomethane.

Locals solutions left out

However, zero-waste advocate Liam Prince says the better approach would have been to build up the local composting sector first.

“It would have been nice to see Auckland Council actually put a bit more effort into building up the local composting sector.”

Todd agrees, saying a lot of people are, in fact, composting at home. “They’re going to now be basically incentivised to stop doing that because they have to pay for [the council collection], regardless.”

Todd feels that the $30 million used to build the BioGas food-waste-to-energy facility at Reparoa could have been used to strengthen local composting.

“It’s a real shame because there’s so many compost hubs across Tamaki Makaurau and the level of investment that we’ve got as a network is so much less than what the level of investment BioGas had to get to get their initiative started.”

Todd says she feels people have been misled by the council into believing the kerbside collection is a composting service.

“I think most members of the public still think it’s a composting thing. They don’t know that it’s creating [harmful] gas.”

Once the food scraps are delivered to the BioGas plant, they undergo a process called anaerobic digestion which turns the scraps into digestate, or liquid fertilizer, producing heat, CO2 and methane gas as  byproducts.

The methane will be captured and diverted to natural-gas pipelines, while the CO2 and heat will be used to ripen fruit at nearby Turners and Growers' tomato greenhouses.

“It’s methane gas that’ll be used in combustion to create energy which will obviously release huge amounts of CO2, so to me it’s just a massive greenwashing," Todd said.

Is this the scale of the future?

Prince, co-founder of The Rubbish Trip, said he was worried the large-scale system would become the predominant approach to dealing with food waste in New Zealand.

“[I’m] concerned that they’re going to get seen as the silver bullet and the best thing, and we just build a bunch of those facilities and that’s everything that we do for New Zealand’s organic waste and that would just be such a shame and so many lost opportunities.

“The climate, the environment and our communities would be worse off for it.”

Prince said he felt more could have been done to strengthen local compost initiatives so the overall system was more resilient.

“There’s so many downsides with these large-scale facilities. They’re not resilient. Imagine if something goes wrong with this facility in Reparoa.

“Materials [are] having to travel so far, any of the roads for example could be put out of action, and then what happens to this stuff? Well, it will probably just end up going to landfill again.

“There’s no local industry that has been supported to build resilience into the system . . . there’s a bunch of risk in that kind of approach too.

“I think councils should be much for careful about thinking about what systems that choose to put in place.”

Prince said smaller enterprises would struggle to compete. “The reality is it’s cleaner and its simpler and these large-scale facilities have the economies of scale.

“It can be both . . . let’s support as much local as possible, and then what we can’t do locally, let’s build larger facilities that can serve a wider region and be a back-stop in a way."

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