for Sunday Herald, 20 January 2013
The way that Scotland deals with its reeking mountains of household waste has been revolutionised over the last decade. It has moved from recycling less than five per cent in 2000 to recycling over 40% in 2011.
The trouble, though, is that is not enough. In order to comply with European Union legislation and to help achieve its “zero waste" ambition, the Scottish government is aiming to recycle 50% by 2013 and 70% by 2025.
But it is going to have difficulties fulfilling those aspirations. The more waste is recycled, the harder it becomes to recycle what’s left. Much is contaminated, and there’s a limit to the number of materials that can be reused or remade.
Research for the Scottish government in 2010 suggested that a quarter of municipal waste was incapable of being recycled or composted. So in order to avoid that being dumped in landfill sites, the idea is that it could be burnt, gasified or otherwise treated to make energy.
Hence councils and private companies have been falling over themselves in the last few years to suggest shiny, new energy-from-waste plants across the country. Local communities, however, have not been exactly welcoming.
Wherever the plants have been proposed, local groups have sprung up angrily opposing them. They will not be clean, harmless producers of electricity and heat, people say, but dirty, dangerous incinerators that will blight the land.
The experience so far with one of the first such plants at Dargavel in Dumfries has helped the protestors, not the industry. As the Sunday Herald reports today, it has broken pollution rules hundreds of times, and is now under the beady eye of government watchdogs.
“The catalogue of failures at this plant is truly shocking and gives little confidence in this technology,” said Lang Banks, the new director of WWF Scotland. “Achieving a resource-efficient economy requires us to focus on cutting the amount of waste produced, reusing and recycling as much as possible rather than letting valuable raw materials go up in smoke.”
Environmental groups warn that building a rash of big incinerators will create a demand for waste to feed them. This will undermine the more important task of reducing and recycling waste, they say.
But waste companies point out that there will always be a residue that cannot be recycled. “If we are to move away from using landfills, then energy-from-waste plants provide a way to get electricity and heat from our waste which is why local authorities sometimes procure them,” said Matthew Farrow, the director of policy at the Environmental Services Association, which represents the waste industry.
Viridor, the company behind plans for energy-from-waste plants in Glasgow and Dunbar in East Lothian, argues that achieving “zero waste” is impossible without such facilities. “The public can be assured that modern, well-managed energy-from-waste facilities operate today, and every day, across the globe,” said the firm’s communications manager, Martin Grey.
Communities asked to host such plants, however, are likely to remain sceptical. And unless waste companies can do a much better job than they are currently doing in Dumfries, they will lose vital political support.