Scotland’s zero waste challenge set to tax councils

Scotland's zero waste regulations should create plenty of recyclable material. But, argues David Burrows, can the stretching targets be met and what will material quality be like?

It’s no secret that Scotland has ambitions to become one of the world’s greenest economies and critical to this has been its waste policy.

Last year new zero waste regulations were announced, which will require councils to increase kerbside services to include separate collections for paper and card, plastic, metal, glass and, with the exception of rural areas, food as well.

In the immediate future, however, stand some stretching recycling targets – 50% of household waste needs to be recycled or composted by 2014. In 2011, recycling rates were 40%, just 1.5% higher than 2010, according to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

Opposition parties have suggested the target is “unachievable” given the gap between the best and worst performing councils.

“It seems the majority of councils simply don’t have the resources to make [the 50% recycling rates] happen,” says the Scottish Conservatives’ environment spokesman Jamie McGrigor.

Indeed, only seven councils managed to recycle or compost 50% or more of the household waste they collected, while the likes of Shetland and Dumfries & Galloway recycled only 16.7% and 21.5% respectively.

Rob Gibson, a Scottish National Party MSP who also convenes the rural affairs, climate change and environment committee, says the targets are “possible” but there are “real challenges” in some areas with collections.

The high-rises in Glasgow and tenement flats in Edinburgh are cases in point. In 2011, Edinburgh managed to recycle 31% of its waste thanks, in part, to a move to fortnightly collections for houses.

“The target is to get to 50% by the end of this year, but the tenements will be a tougher nut to crack,” says Edinburgh City Council’s deputy environment leader Jim Orr.

Meanwhile, in Perth & Kinross, rates increased to 52.7% following improvements in reuse and recycling infrastructure. Collection rates are one side of the coin; on the other is the quality of materials coming out the other end.

“The range of materials that can be recycled depends on what items the MRFs can accept for sorting and resale,” explains Edinburgh’s waste minimisation officer Yvonne Bell.

“There has to be a sustainable end market for items before they can be collected – there has to be a company willing to purchase and use baled rigid plastics from the MRF before a collection of rigid plastics can be set up at the kerbside from households.”

Bell adds that it’s “imperative” that MRFs keep up to date with technology in order to meet demand in the range of materials, quality and quantity of waste being generated.

Quality is currently a hot topic in the Scottish waste industry with contamination of co-mingled collections at MRFs around 10.5%.

A consultation has just closed on a new Recyclate Quality Action Plan, including a code of practice for all MRFs. The concept, generally, has been welcomed and more funding is to go towards improving facilities.

In October, the Scottish government announced £1.2m of funding to boost the country’s recycling infrastructure and collection systems, and help councils meet the 50% milestone.

The funds are welcome and the regulations can’t come soon enough for some. In November, Shanks Waste Management had to “mothball” a new MRF due to the low volumes of materials brought in and the price dropping “dramatically” for the products coming out.

Even so, managing director Ian Goodfellow is optimistic about the future, especially if contamination levels can be reduced.

“No doubt there will be plenty of material going forward, especially with many more separate collections when the new regulations start to bite next year,” he adds.

“Local authorities also need to have a real dialogue with MRF operators to understand what [we] can and can’t do.”

Whether Scotland can meet its recycling targets only time will tell.

David Burrows is a freelance journalist

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