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Food waste collection has been delayed in Sheffield indefinitely. Is there a more radical alternative?

Activists believe community composting could help us build a more circular economy in the city.

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Peter Gilbert (left) and Alexi Dimond.

Food waste collection is becoming a normal part of domestic life across Britain. But not in Sheffield, where the council has recently voted to postpone introducing a scheme potentially until 2038 – despite being told by the government to do so.

Under new government rules, all councils in England must introduce a weekly food waste recycling service by March 2026, unless they apply for a special exemption based on their circumstances or existing contracts that they can't get out of.

That's exactly what's happened in Sheffield, where a report prepared by council officers in November sets out why a vast contract signed with French waste management giant Veolia has tied the city's hands when it comes to expanding its recycling provision.

Alexi Dimond, a Green councillor, points out that the Veolia contract, signed long before calls to separate out food waste from regular waste became mainstream, gives the company "exclusive rights to collect household waste in Sheffield."

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Brighton has a community composting service run by the Brighton & Hove Food Partnership.

Maciek Wróblewski on Unsplash.

This means that unlike other local councils, many of which have already introduced permanent food waste services, the council can't put the contract out to a competitive tender process, bargain for a better price, or decide to use a smaller local firm – they're stuck with Veolia or nothing.

"Obviously Veolia seeks to maximise its profits, rather than environmental benefit," Cllr Dimond told Now Then. "Therefore the proposal for Sheffield would have been for Veolia to collect the food waste and then transport it to a large anaerobic digestion facility in another county – there is no such facility in South Yorkshire."

This would then be converted into biogas and fertiliser for nearby farms. But here's the twist: part of the way Veolia makes its money out of the marathon contract with the council is by burning Sheffield's household waste in the incinerator near the Parkway, generating energy it then sells back to the grid.

"Veolia demanded compensation for the loss of material, the food waste, going to the incinerator," explains Dimond. "The overall result was that the environmental impact and carbon savings would have been minimal – only 78 tons per year – while the cost would have been £3 million per year."

In their report to councillors, officers recommended that SCC ask the government for an exemption to the 2026 deadline, on the basis that the contract with Veolia made any proposed service not only environmentally negligible but also eye-wateringly expensive. They said that the £3 million a year could instead be used for "alternative climate change projects that could deliver additional carbon savings" than a Veolia-led food waste service.

What could those alternatives look like?

For some activists, the limits dictated by the Veolia deal offer an opportunity to completely reimagine what recycling looks like in the city, taking a top-down service led by the council and turning it into a peer-to-peer service rooted in our neighbourhoods and communities.

“It is possible to create real sustainable alternatives, like investing in home composting, networks of community composting points, local processing facilities and supporting local organisations in the ShefFood network,” environmental activist and Green council candidate Peter Gilbert tells Now Then.

He adds that he would like to see a “network of local composting, growers, cafes, food deliveries and shops” that would, together, comprise an alternative system for managing food waste and help the city transition towards a circular economy.

“A local model is much more sustainable than relying on a multinational commercial company to deliver a substandard service,” says Gilbert. “We can look towards a truly sustainable collection service for our food waste once the Veolia contract runs out, and there’s a lot we can do until then.”

Gilbert suggests a number of ideas that he says the city could experiment with, using the £3 million a year that they would otherwise have needed to pay Veolia to take on the food waste.

“My ideas are subsidised home composters – suitable for those with or without gardens – and funding for e-cargo bikes or electric vans for community organisations to serve collection points set up around the city,” he said. “It’s been done in Brighton and it can be done in Sheffield too.”

In Brighton, an organisation called the Brighton & Hove Food Partnership run a community composting service in partnership with the council. This sees dozens of wooden boxes placed in neighbourhoods across the city for nearby residents to leave their own food waste in, and collect compost as and when they need it.

Anyone who wants to take part in the project first has to complete an induction where they learn about what can be composted and what can’t, and they’re then provided with padlock codes to access the boxes. Over 1,200 households currently take part, and any leftover compost that isn’t used by the scheme’s members is given to parks, community gardens and food growing projects in local schools.

The codes point to the fact that this isn’t an unmanaged free-for-all – the project is better understood as a commons, and like all successful commons it’s carefully stewarded. Each box is looked after by two compost monitors, who also induct and train new members.

"The scheme in Brighton is something we should be looking to implement and build on in Sheffield," said Cllr Dimond. "In November the Waste & Street Scene Committee voted to work with local partners to explore options for community composting."

"We already have the ShefFood partnership, which includes local organisations like Regather and Food Works, who produce food locally. The council can support these organisations to link up with residents to compost food waste, creating a sustainable, circular economy for home-grown healthy food."

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