Can Scotland reach zero waste?

Scotland's Zero Waste Plan aims to recycle 70% of all waste by 2025 - a tough target that will require a culture change if it is to be reached. Robert Seaton assesses the impact of such policy

Scotland’s Zero Waste Plan (ZWP) published in June is an ambitious document. In setting out a policy framework for waste management in Scotland for the next ten years and beyond, it shifts the policy focus from municipal waste to all waste, with an aspirational target of 70% recycling of all waste by 2025, and 5% landfill.

Like the rest of the UK, Scotland has made considerable progress in the past decade in improving waste management, although its strategy was focused on municipal waste. Within ten years to 2009, Scotland increased the municipal waste recycling rate from 4% to 34% and cut landfill by a third. The Scottish Government also claims success in meeting Landfill Directive targets for diversion of biodegradable municipal waste from landfill, not only for 2010 but also for 2013.

This is actually a windfall result of a change in the definition of municipal waste agreed between the UK Government and the European Commission. There is worse news on domestic targets for recycling of municipal waste: 40% by 2010, 50% by 2013 and 60% by 2020 – the interim steps towards the 2025 target of 70%. Audit Scotland’s January report indicated that councils did not have sufficient plans to meet the 2013 targets or even possibly the 2010 target.

Against this background, the ZWP’s headline policies are the aspirational target of 70% recycling of all waste by 2025, and to cut landfill to 5%. In addition, a waste prevention plan to be prepared for the end of 2011, and domestic targets for preparation for reuse, recycling and composting of household waste of 40% for 2010, 50% for 2013 and 60% for 2020.

Similar interim targets are promised for commercial and industrial waste streams, and there is a proposal to remove the cap of 25% from energy-from-waste for municipal waste, subject to the introduction of restrictions on feedstock that would ensure it comprised only waste from which greater economic or environmental benefits could not be recovered through reuse or recycling.

Landfill bans waiting in the wings

The plan also outlines the introduction of landfill bans for unsorted waste and ultimately all biodegradable waste as well as mandatory source-segregation for food waste from households and certain business sectors, and for paper, metals, plastics, textiles and glass from all sources. The refocusing of the plan from municipal waste to all waste is to be welcomed. There’s much work to be done on the detail. There are at least three key issues. The first is data – the Government is to develop interim targets for commercial and industrial waste. In order to do so, it will need primary data on waste arisings.

The previous National Waste Plan in 2003 mentioned the difficulty of doing so, and its focus on municipal waste was partly a consequence. The ZWP indicates the Government will make regulations compelling businesses to supply waste data on request. What additional burden this will place on businesses and how easily such data can be collated will have to be seen when the draft regulations appear this autumn.

The second issue is that of source-segregation and landfill bans. The Government is concerned that banning waste from landfill could result in it being moved only one or two rungs up the waste hierarchy. If unsorted waste is banned, then it would become available for MBT plants or energy-from-waste plants, which would encourage an oversupply of such plants. This would not fit with the aim to improve recycling and reuse rates.

The ZWP seeks to prevent this outcome – first, by restricting what waste can be used for energy, and second, by the introduction of greater source-segregation. The aim of the latter is to increase quantity and quality of recyclable materials and so support a market for such materials that would draw them up the waste hierarchy away from residual treatments. The timing of the landfill ban would depend on how far source-segregation had been established.

Kerbside sort may become mandatory

The proposal is to introduce mandatory source-segregation in 2013 for not only dry recyclates such as plastic, paper and metal, but also for food waste collected from households and businesses such as restaurants and food retailers. Separate collection of food waste will require a substantial culture change for households, so councils need to start thinking about how to ensure buy in. The Government is to consult on the necessary legislation in autumn 2010, so we will have to wait till then to find out what penalties or incentives it proposes.

The third issue is infrastructure. In its planning policy, produced earlier this year, the Government anticipates a “significant increase in the number, range and type of waste management installation … to manage municipal, commercial and industrial waste. Composting facilities, transfer stations, materials recycling facilities, and anaerobic digestion, mechanical, biological and thermal treatment plants are the main types of installation that are required”.

The achievements of the past decade in improving recycling rates and reducing landfill, although considerable, may have been the low hanging fruit. Relatively few waste management facilities for dealing with non-recycled waste have been commissioned, partly due, at least for municipal waste, to ever-changing procurement structures. A report to the ZWP indicated that new infrastructure would be required by 2013 to meet the Government’s municipal waste targets, including 200,000 tonnes of energy-from-waste capacity, and similar amounts of aerobic and anaerobic composting capacity. When and whether MBT facilities for mixed waste might be needed would depend on the success of source-segregation.

Opportunity knocks

Since the plan aims to cover all waste, the need for solutions that fit with it should represent a significant opportunity for the resource management sector. There have already been a number of speculative planning applications for merchant facilities for residual waste in the past year. No doubt this activity will increase. However, the experience of these applications shows that obtaining permission to meet the need for new infrastructure may be far from straightforward. Of six applications decided for thermal treatment facilities, five were refused by the planning authority despite, in all but one case, being recommended for approval by officers.

The Government has addressed the issue of planning in an annex to the ZWP. A tool is to be provided using data from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to assist local authorities in identifying the infrastructure they need. SEPA is already providing data in infrastructure maps and on capacity as well as on waste arisings. Councils are expected to identify sites for waste management in their development plans, and where they do not do so, can expect SEPA to object to the plan.

This is all positive, although there are similar undertakings in the National Waste Plan 2003. In the present crop of Main Issues Reports, the first round in consultation on Scotland’s new-style development plans, few planning authorities appear to have been willing to identify new sites for waste management. We will see in due course what SEPA will make of this.

Robert Seaton is a senior solicitor in the planning team at Brodies LLP

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