It’s the invasion of the incinerators. Scotland is facing a massive 17-fold expansion in waste incineration that could blight communities, threaten health and wreck the Scottish government’s recycling targets.
An investigation by the Sunday Herald has uncovered plans for 15 new, high temperature waste plants around the country which will treat nearly three million tonnes of waste a year. This compares to the three existing incinerators that burn just 166,000 tones a year.
Almost everywhere they have been proposed, the new plants have run into fierce opposition from local residents, fearful of toxic emissions, health risks and environmental pollution. They have held angry meetings, marched in protests and gone to court.
Environmentalists point out that the proposed plants are so huge that they will swamp Scottish ministers’ much-vaunted plans for “zero waste”. The incinerators will create such a large demand for waste that they will risk reversing the major gains that have been made in recycling in recent years, they argue.
“The scale of energy from waste proposals is shocking and risks undermining the Scottish government’s zero waste vision,” said Dr Dan Barlow, head of policy with WWF Scotland.
“Burning anything like this volume of household rubbish would render the target to recycle 70 per cent of waste a pipedream. It is at odds with government policy that energy from waste would only be used for materials that can't be recycled or reused.”
The prospect of local authorities locking themselves into contracts to burn this amount of waste was “alarming”, Barlow argued. “The government needs to intervene if it is not to see its vision of a zero waste Scotland go up in smoke.”
Around two million tonnes of municipal waste collected by councils is likely to be treated annually in the new plants, with the rest being commercial waste from shops and businesses. This would use up most of the three million tonnes of household waste currently collected every year.
By far the most ambitious plan is for a high temperature gasification plant near Newton Mearns, where a Scottish company wants to treat a million tonnes a year of commercial and municipal waste. But this has sparked some of the angriest protests (see below).
There are also large plants proposed for elsewhere in Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, near Edinburgh, East Lothian, Perth, Stirling, Invergordon and Peterhead. Multinational companies, councils and local businessmen are behind the proposals, which are set to change the face of waste disposal in Scotland (see below).
The Green Glasgow MSP, Patrick Harvie, described the incinerator boom as “a dangerous distraction” from creating a truly zero-waste Scotland. “Incineration is part of the same old mindset of dump and run, it's 'landfill in the sky' for local authorities who are running out of space but aren't acting to tackle the root causes of this problem,” he said.
“Greens stand with campaigners in Newton Mearns, in Invergordon and in many other communities across Scotland who are simply concerned about the health of their families and the impact on their local environments.”
One of those concerned is Ann Coleman, from the North Airdrie Joint Communities Group, which has been campaigning against the £300-million Drumshangie incinerator planned for Greengairs in North Lanarkshire. She fears for the health of thousands of people.
“In 2003 a government-commissioned report concluded that living in the central belt could shorten life expectancy by up to 10 years because of pollution from particulates and any increase could prove to be fatal for even more people,” she told the Sunday Herald.
“Particulates have no safe level and can be so small as to defy monitoring by current equipment. The government has a responsibility for our health and our environment and yet they continue to refuse to take action to control the proliferation of mass burn technology that will add to the risk.”
There was a debate about incineration policy in the Scottish Parliament last week, though it didn’t get much attention outside the chamber. Campaigners were pleased that the issues were at least being discussed, but they have been left infuriated by the way the parliament’s petitions committee treated them.
According to Michael Gallagher, from the umbrella group, Green Alternatives to Incineration in Scotland (GAINS), they spent months preparing a petition calling for an immediate ban on the construction of new waste incinerators and the closure of existing plants within five years.
When campaigners first presented their petition in January, MSPs expressed sympathy, and took issues up with local authorities. But then came the election in May, and all but two members of the petitions committee changed.
When the new committee looked at the petition in June, they rejected it as “incompetent” in less than three minutes. The campaigners’ demands were “unrealistic and unachievable”, they said.
The process was deeply disillusioning, Gallagher said. “We now realise that the public petitions system is just a con, a way of duping the public into thinking that they have a say in public policy.”
Not everyone, of course, is so critical. Professor Jim Baird, a waste expert at Glasgow Caledonian University, pointed out that some of the plants being proposed would end up not being built.
The Scottish government was trying hard to boost recycling, and was likely to regulate to prevent the incineration of waste that hadn’t been subject to recycling. “There are sufficient brakes in place to prevent councils from walking away from recycling targets and just burning their wastes,” he argued.
“My own preference is for smaller, more local, plants which can supply communities with both electricity and heat. Given the tight emission standards we have in place and the controls on hazardous wastes, the concerns over toxic emissions are unfounded.”
Stephen Freeland, from the waste industry’s Scottish Environmental Services Association, supported a major increase in recycling. But he argued that energy-from-waste (EfW) plants had a key role to play in keeping non-recyclable waste out of landfill.
“More use of EfW need not threaten the achievement of Scotland’s recycling targets. Experience from European countries shows that high levels of energy recovery from waste is entirely compatible with further increases in recycling,” he said.
“EfW plants are modern installations tightly regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).”
The Scottish government insisted that its forthcoming zero waste regulations would not allow for large-scale incineration in Scotland, and that this would be enforced by Sepa. “It is the role of the planning authority for their area to determine the suitability of planning applications,” said a government spokesman.
He pointed that Sepa viewed an incinerator with a capacity of more than 300,000 tonnes as large scale. “The Scottish government does not support large scale incineration,” he added. “Our regulations will limit what goes to incineration.”
But this was little comfort for Stan Blackley, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland. “Incinerators require a constant source and high level of waste as fuel to keep the fires burning, and to meet this demand local authorities will often abandon recycling and waste reduction plans altogether,” he said.
“They can also emit toxic gases, nitrogen oxide, heavy metals and fine particulates, even after the filtering and scrubbing of the flue gases. Many of these are pernicious contaminants that pass from the atmosphere into humans and are known to cause cancers and infertility. Who wants that on their doorstep?”
The battle of Newton Mearns
Local feelings about the proposal for a massive waste incinerator at Loganswell Farm near Newton Mearns run deep. “These plans would put at risk the lives and well-being of thousands of children, including my own, just so that one group of men can line their own pockets,” argues Jessica.
“We will fight this until the bitter end because there is nothing that could justify jeopardising our children’s’ health. Nobody has the right to damage our children's quality of life.”
Jessica, who lives in Newton Mearns, has helped set up the Facebook protest group, Mums Against the Incinerator. She is one of thousands of local people opposing the scheme for a high temperature gasification plant to treat a million tonnes of commercial and municipal waste a year put forward by Lifetime Recycling Village, a company set up by Scottish businessmen.
The site is less than two miles from a big primary school, she points out. “Because of the prevailing winds, it would be these children and all of the other children in Newton Mearns who would be most affected by the dioxins and particles released by this incinerator,” she says.
“We all chose to live here because of the excellent quality of life this area provides. There are high achieving state schools, wonderful countryside and a lovely community. All of this would be destroyed if the incinerator were to go ahead.”
The £640 million plant has succeeded in uniting political parties against it, with Labour’s leadership contender, Ken Macintosh MSP, on the same side as the Conservative leadership contender, Jackson Carlaw MSP. Two weeks ago more than 2,000 local people turned out for an anti-incinerator protest march.
But it is strongly defended by Neil Gallacher, the managing director of Lifetime Recycling Village. Technically, he argues, it will not be an incinerator. “It will use thermal treatment in its renewable power station for gasification, not burning, of carefully prepared waste-derived fuel mix for maximum efficiency in generating electricity,” he says.
“It would be unique in Scotland. We would invest in a range of world leading technology to contribute significantly to Scotland's waste and renewables targets. Environmental safety is central to our proposals.”
According to Gallacher, the plant will “neutralise” toxins in waste to produce “totally safe” materials. “It will control all its emissions well within the permitted ranges for any other form of thermal waste treatment,” he adds.
“It will have a lower carbon footprint than alternative forms of waste treatment, and it will bring significant economic, employment and community benefits.”
Local residents, however, remain deeply suspicious. They point out that Gallacher’s CEO, Brian Kilgour, was fined £750 by Kilmarnock Sheriff Court in March 2009 for illegally dumping waste, and that the firm’s lawyer, Ann Faulds of Dundas and Wilson, has also been advising the US property tycoon, Donald Trump, about his controversial golf resort in Aberdeenshire.
Harry Stewart lives across the road from Loganswell Farm and chairs the protest group, East Renfrewshire Against the Incinerator. “We cannot allow this clear danger to our community to be built,” he declares.
“The traffic impact will be catastrophic, there will be smells and pollution and a reduction in local house prices by between 20% and 40%. This would be a complete disaster for the community.”
Waste incinerators in Scotland
Irvine, North Ayrshire: An application by Lancashire-based BioGenpower for an 80,000-tonne energy-from-waste plant won planning permission in August 2007.
Newton Mearns, Glasgow: Lifetime Recycling Village, a company set up by Scottish businessmen, wants to build a high temperature gasification plant to treat up to a million tonnes of commercial and municipal waste a year. But the plan has united political parties against it, and sparked a 2,000-strong protest march earlier this month.
Dargavel, Dumfries: The waste company, Scotgen, has been commissioning a gasification incinerator for more than 20,000 tonnes of waste a year. But the process has run into problems and frequently breached pollution limits, causing its performance to be condemned as “very poor” by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in 2009 and 2010.
Stonehouse, South Lanarkshire: An application by Scotgen for a 100,000-tonne gasification incinerator for residual waste at Dovesdale Farm was granted, despite 20,000 objections. But it’s now being challenged in court.
Carnbroe, North Lanarkshire: An application by Shore Energy, a company run by award-winning butcher Simon Howie, for a high temperature pyrolysis plant to treat 160,000 tonnes of municipal waste a year was rejected by North Lanarkshire Council after 6,000 objections. But the council’s decision was overturned by Scottish ministers in May, and it is now seeking a judicial review.
Greengairs, North Lanarkshire: The Glasgow-based property firm, Gillespie Investment Group, won permission from North Lanarkshire Council in May 2009 for a 300,000-tonne municipal waste incinerator despite more than a thousand objections.
Dunbar, East Lothian: An application by Viridor, a waste firm owned by the Pennon Group in London, for a 300,000-tonne municipal waste incinerator was rejected by East Lothian Council in 2009, but that was overturned by Scottish ministers in December 2010.
Millerhill, Midlothian: The UK multinational, AMEC, has been working with Midlothian and Edinburgh councils on plans to build a 200,000-tonne municipal waste incinerator by 2014.
Stirling: Powercrofters, a company part-owned by Stirling’s SNP Provost, Fergus Wood, has applied for planning permission for a 60,000-tonne gasification incinerator.
Perth: An application by Oxfordshire company, Grundon, for a 90,000-tonne municipal waste incinerator was rejected in 2010. But it has revised its plans to include gasification and reapplied, prompting at least 1,000 objections.
Glenfarg, near Perth: An application by the French-owned waste firm, SITA UK, for a 60,000-tonne municipal waste incinerator was granted planning permission in 2007 despite 270 objections. The company has now applied to change the process to high-temperature gasification.
Baldovie, Dundee: An incinerator run by a council-backed company burns 120,000 tonnes of municipal waste a year. But the plant has had a chequered history, and in 2008 failed the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s pollution assessment after it breached emission limits for highly toxic dioxins by 100 times.
Invergordon, Easter Ross: An application by Combined Power and Heat Highlands Ltd for a 130,000-tonne municipal waste incinerator was rejected by Highland Council but then overturned by Scottish ministers in May 2010. A campaign group, backed by local landowner and former owner of Harrods, Mohamed Al Fayed, challenged the decision in court, and it is now being reconsidered.
Stoneyhill, Peterhead: SITA UK has applied for planning permission for an incinerator to gasify 100,000 tonnes of residual household waste a year. An earlier application by another firm was rejected, after 6,000 objections.
Portree, Isle of Skye: Highland Council is assessing a plan to build a 40,000-tonne municipal waste incinerator.
Forth, near Lanark: Levenseat Recycling company says it has won planning permission for a gasification incinerator for 60,000 tonnes of mixed residual waste a year.
Lerwick, Shetland: The local company, Shetland Heat and Power, runs an incinerator burning 26,000 tonnes of municipal waste a year to provide heat to local homes and offices. A third of the waste is imported from Orkney.
No need for poisonous incinerators
by Michael Gallagher, Green Alternatives to Incineration in Scotland (GAINS)
Incinerators always undermine recycling. Dumfries and Galloway Council abolished kerbside recycling of paper, plastics and textiles to feed its new incinerator. Meanwhile the Scottish government is spending sweetie money on recycling – just £5 million to improve plastic recycling since 2009.
Scotland should be following the example of places like San Francisco, which is recycling 77% of waste and aims for 100% by 2020 with no incineration or landfill.
The Scottish government claims that its new ‘zero waste’ regulations will prevent recyclable waste being burnt. In fact the regulations state there will be no minimum standards for the extraction of recyclable materials at waste treatment facilities. Worse, the government has removed the 25% cap on waste incineration, leaving the way open for unlimited incineration.
The waste industry falsely claims that councils will need to burn waste to avoid fines for breaching European landfill quotas. In fact these quotas only apply to the biodegradable portion of municipal waste, i.e. things that can rot and produce methane.
Biodegradable municipal waste consists mainly of paper, card, textiles, food and garden waste. Nearly all of this can easily be recycled or composted at a fraction of the cost of incineration. That is why Lancashire County Council has now rejected incineration altogether, in favour of intensive measures to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Waste incinerators emit hundreds of dangerous chemicals. Many, such as carcinogenic dioxins and heavy metals, are only measured twice a year. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) refuses to demand continual monitoring of dioxins, despite the fact that this is required in other countries. Whole classes of harmful chemicals are not monitored at all, such as PBDEs.
The government states that in 2014 it will carry out an “initial survey” to check that recyclable waste is not being incinerated. By then it will be too late. The incinerators will have been built, and local communities will be condemned to 30 years of breathing poisonous fumes under Sepa’s discredited monitoring regime.
We need energy from waste
by Martin Grey, Scottish External Affairs Manager, Viridor
But waste is changing. As a nation we’ve changed our focus. No longer is rubbish to be thrown away, today waste is a resource filled with possibilities. And we’re doing well. In addition to waste reduction and reuse, recycling has been a real Scottish success story.
But to go further and avoid increasingly costly landfill levies impacting council tax, the evolution must continue.
With ambitious local and national targets, transforming policy into practice will mean a new network of ‘next generation’ green infrastructure – an integrated mix of modern, proven technologies to enhance recycling and, importantly, recover green energy from what remains.
Zero waste won’t happen without energy from waste, a key component of Scottish government policy, in the sustainability jigsaw.
Here Scotland is playing catch up. The choice isn’t recycling or incineration, but rather a firm focus on the former with a requirement for the latter.
Consider that Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands have the highest contributions from Energy-from-Waste (EfW) in Europe, but also show the highest rates of recycling.
In fact, modern EfW facilities operate today, and every day, across the globe. They operate to stringent environmental standards in locations like Shetland, where the sensitively designed facility feeds a district heating scheme serving 1,000 properties.
EfW has the potential to account for at least 6% of total UK energy production by 2015. It will power and heat Scottish businesses, public buildings and communities and will deliver a suite of community benefits including professional jobs, upskilling new entrants, partnering SMEs and growing our social enterprise sector
But whilst the case for harnessing energy from the waste we can’t recycle is clear, the argument has yet to be won. As with the digital TV switchover, the need case for new technology requires to be made. That’s a role for government, politicians and industry.
Infrastructure must be sensitive to its location. Not every application will be realised. But the need is real and the opportunities significant. As the Institution of Mechanical Engineers states, “the time for energy from waste is now."