A lot of years ago, I was involved in helping set up a project to dispose of abbatoir waste by fermenting it, rather than burning it. The trouble is, meat doesn't actually ferment in the same way as sugars and it produces a lot of really horrible products - including vapourous chemicals called cadaverine and putrescine, among others, the names of which should give you a clue what they smell like. Oh, and ammonia. Loads of ammonia. And absolutely astounding quantities of CO2.
Have you ever come across a days-dead bird, mouse or hedgehog when gardening? Imagine that scent on an industrial scale and ask yourself where you could put such a facility. It could stink out a medium sized town.
We came up with the idea that we could mix it with carbohydrate-rich waste, such as straw, to reduce the stench. When microbes have no carbohydrate but lots of protein, they break the protein for energy but they can't use all parts of the protein for energy. Lots of nitrogen gets dumped as ammonia and lots of spare bits of amino acids and cannibalised protein fragments get dumped as vile-smelling compoiunds. So, we thought, give them carbohydrate and they'll use the protein as protein, thereby reducing the production of the stinky stuff.
The other thing a large scale fermentation like that produces is heat. Lots of heat. Enough to be useful in energy generation or simply as a piped hot water supply. The little compost heat in the garden gets warm due to fermentation but scale it up and soon you're talking serious heat.
Unfortunately, too much heat will kill the microbes and the whole thing will stop. Running cold water through pipes (and taking warmer water out of the other end) would help with that but even so, the design was a nightmare. You can't easily mix something that's criss-crossed with pipes. We'd need a few pilot plants to try it out. Big expense, and pilot plants don't always scale up easily.
That expense was one reason the idea folded. Another was supply of materials. We'd need the right proportions of carbohydrate to protein to keep it running without having to supply nosepegs to the local population. Abbatoir scraps and supermarket discarded meat would not be likely to arrive in a constant, predictable flow and neither would straw or other carbohydrate waste. The quality of the protein in the meat and the carbohydrate content of the straw would vary too. That's just nature.
Then there was the disease aspect. Plants get diseases, but nobody's ever come down with a case of rust or wilt or stem-rot. Animals get diseases that we can get too. The meat for disposal would not be subject to hygiene regulations (that would be silly - if it passed hygiene regs it would be safe to eat!) so could be crawling with all sorts of nasties. Those might be killed in the fermentation, they might not, they might even grow nicely in there. So the composted end product could be a seriously hazardous material and we'd have to burn it. Hence, fermenting it would be a total waste of time.
Metals such as copper, mercury and zinc accumulate in animal tissues. Composting won't get rid of these. They are elements. The composting process risked concentrating these metals so if the compost were repeatedly spread on land, the land would become poisoned and grow nothing. Getting the metals out was far too expensive to be viable.
The project was binned as it was not feasible. Vegetable matter is easy to compost, it breaks down into useful material, is safe and if done right, it's not stinky. Meat composting won't work. There are just too many problems, both with doing it and with dealing with the end product. That discussion happened about twenty years ago.
And yet Hilarity Benn plans to make everyone put all food scraps into bins and then force the councils to do something useful with them, such as composting them. As I understand it, Hilarity is a vegetable so wouldn't be throwing out any meat waste, and as he's an MP and therefore not very bright, he won't have realised that other people will throw out meat waste and in some cases, quite a lot of it. He will, no doubt, insist that supermarkets and butchers dispose of food waste in the same way which means there will be occasional huge surges of protein going into those council composters - and a day or so later, a stench that will have everyone for miles demanding gas masks.
Many people, as a result of previous green drives and low-frequency bin collections, will have taken on their own composting bins for garden compost. They'll put all their potato peelings and apple cores in their own compost bins, so the proportion of meat going into the slop buckets will be very high. Which will make matters worse at the council facility.
If they start building a composter near you, sell your house fast and move before they finish it.
On another note:
He [Hilarity] told MPs: “Should food waste continue to go to landfill? I don't think it's sensible that it should.”
Glass, plastic, paper and card don't go into landfill. Batteries are collected separately. Electronics and white goods are separated. Now, no food scraps. What actually goes into landfill these days?
Oh, and in case you think this might not be such a good idea and decide not to go along with it...
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is drawing up new rules on separating food waste, and is known to be considering allowing councils to impose fines of up to £500 on households who do not comply.
Slop buckets in your kitchens, or you get fined. As others have already spotted, Lord 'Basher' Tebbit has described Labour's idea of the 'carrot and stick' approach perfectly. I think it might be time to add a new blog to the list.
If these council waste fermentors come to reality, they will represent the most telling legacy of the Labour party yet, by filling the country with the true stench of decay.
I hope Hilarity leads the way by having the first one next to his house.