from Sunday Herald, 19 December 2010
Council taxpayers who have successfully boosted their recycling face multi-million pound bills for failing to dump enough waste on landfill sites, the Sunday Herald can reveal.
Long term contracts could force local authorities to make “fresh air payments” to private companies for landfill space that they don’t use. The payments, which could cost individual councils millions every year, have been condemned as “ridiculous” and “unbelievable” by councillors and environmental groups.
Scotland is aiming for “zero waste” by attempting to increase recycling and to reduce the amount of waste created in the first place. Over the last five years the proportion of waste being recycled by Scottish local authorities has risen from 17% to over 37%.
This means that much less waste is being disposed of as landfill, where it rots and causes noxious pollution. But some councils signed contracts with waste companies in the 1990s that oblige them to deliver minimum amounts of waste to landfill sites every year.
A recent report to councillors estimated that shortfalls in meeting this minimum could end up making the council liable for fresh air payments of £2.5 million a year for three years from 2017. This is because of government plans to introduce bans on some kinds of waste being dumped as landfill.
“It is ridiculous that Edinburgh is locked into a contract which requires it to either generate rubbish, or pay for empty landfill space,” said Dr Dan Barlow, head of policy with WWF Scotland.
“This must act as a warning to all local authorities to avoid locking themselves into long term landfill or incinerator contracts which undermine progress to cut waste volumes and increase recycling. Scarce public cash should be directed to efforts which support Scotland's zero waste ambitions rather than handed over to waste companies for doing nothing.”
Steve Burgess, a green Edinburgh councillor, warned that the same problem could recur if councils entered into big new contracts for waste incinerators. “That means absolutely no incentive to cut down on waste or improve recycling,” he said.
“It's unbelievable that the council is going to have to pay Viridor millions for nothing because they are tied into supplying massive volumes of waste over decades.”
The City of Edinburgh Council argued that it had to honour contracts it had signed in the past. Because landfill was becoming increasingly expensive, millions of pounds would be saved by landfilling less waste, argued a council spokeswoman.
“Our aim, along with the Scottish government, is to minimise the amount of waste being sent to landfill. We are extremely proud of our successes in recycling to date,” she said.
“We don't yet know the impact new Scottish government legislation will have on our contractual commitments to Viridor. However if we are still bound to pay for any shortfall, the maximum exposure would be £2.5 million per annum from 2017 to 2020.”
Several other councils are thought to have long-term landfill contracts that could give them similar headaches. Dumfries and Galloway Council admitted that it was committed to a minimum tonnage of waste going to landfill.
“We're not currently liable for fresh air payments, though we could be in the future,” said a council spokesman. “But we want to reduce our waste. Income from processing waste from private waste companies could offset any future fresh air payments.”
Viridor, which is part of the £3.9 billion waste business, Pennon Group, claims to be the largest waste and recycling company in Scotland. Last week it was given the go-ahead for a £200 million waste incinerator at its Dunbar site.
“Viridor is investing up to £800 million in Scottish ‘next generation’ infrastructure to support the public and private sectors meet ambitious targets and avoid exposure to costly landfill levies,” said the company’s communications manager, Martin Grey.