Carbon pollution from incinerators rises by 100,000 tonnes


Carbon pollution from three waste incinerators in Scotland rose by over 100,000 tonnes in a year, according to new data from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).

Campaigners described the 23 per cent increase between 2019 and 2020 as “truly alarming”. They are calling for a permanent moratorium on new incinerators.

But incinerator operators pointed out that by diverting waste from landfill, they helped cut emissions and deliver a “zero waste, circular economy”. Sepa stressed that incineration should only have a small role for “residual waste”.

Incinerators are increasingly being used to burn waste that would otherwise be dumped in landfill sites, and to generate energy.

An analysis by The Ferret of Sepa’s new Scottish Pollutant Release Inventory has revealed that carbon dioxide emissions from three household waste incinerators increased from 468,000 tonnes in 2019 to 575,000 tonnes in 2020. 

Most pollution was from Viridor’s Energy Recovery Facility at Dunbar in East Lothian, where carbon dioxide emissions rose 15 per cent to 316,000 tonnes in 2020. Emissions from the company’s Glasgow Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre at Polmadie rose by 55 per cent to over 96,000 tonnes.

Pollution from FCC Environment’s Recycling and Energy Recovery Centre at Millerhill just outside Edinburgh increased 23 per cent to 163,000 tonnes. All three plants have been opened since 2018 and reported their carbon dioxide emissions for the first time in 2019.

Up to ten new incinerators are either in planning or due to begin operations in the next few years. 

These new incinerators could create the capacity for an extra 1.5 million tonnes of waste to be burned in Scotland. The amount of waste burnt has increased by over 800,000 tonnes since 2011

But the climate pollution caused has sparked growing concern amongst environmental groups. They warned that burning more waste could cause the Scottish Government to miss its recycling targets. 

In September 2021 the circular economy minister, Green MSP Lorna Slater, announced a review of the role of waste incinerators. A public consultation closed in February and the review, chaired by Dr Colin Church, is expected to report in the coming months.

Slater’s colleague, the Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, told The Ferret: “I am confident that review will conclude that there is no case for new, polluting incinerators.” 

The quickest, cheapest and most effective way to limit emissions would be to ban the burning of plastic.

Kim Pratt, Friends of the Earth Scotland

Friends of the Earth Scotland urged a permanent moratorium on new incinerators. “The rise in incineration in Scotland is truly alarming,” said the environmental group’s campaigner, Kim Pratt.

“Burning more waste means carbon emissions will rise accordingly. Incinerators contribute directly to climate change by burning fossil-based materials like plastic.”

Pratt argued that Scotland should “turn its back” on waste incineration as Wales had done. “We must urgently reduce emissions from existing plants,” she added.

“The quickest, cheapest and most effective way to limit emissions would be to ban the burning of plastic.”

The UK Without Incineration Network warned that carbon dioxide emissions from existing incinerators were just “the tip of the iceberg” as more were planned. “Burning waste creates carbon dioxide, and so the more Scotland burns the higher the greenhouse gas emissions,” said the network’s co-ordinator, Shlomo Dowen.

“We hope that Scotland’s incineration review will result in time being called on consenting new incinerators as burning waste is a terrible idea for so many reasons.”

In March 2022, the waste company, Viridor, cancelled plans for a major new incinerator at Stonehouse in South Lanarkshire. This was viewed as a major victory for the local community which had put sustained pressure on the company to scrap the project. 

The incinerator at Stonehouse would have been Scotland’s largest if it had gone ahead, with the potential to burn 330,000 tonnes of rubbish each year. 

Emissions from two other incinerators that burn household waste – Baldovie in Angus and Shetland – declined slightly in 2020. Both of these sites have been open for more than 20 years, although a second incinerator started operations at Baldovie in February 2022.

Viridor highlighted its commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2040. Its plants were “integral to the Scottish Government’s ambitions to deliver a zero waste, circular economy which encourages waste reduction, boosts recycling and recovers vital energy from what remains,” the company said.

According to Viridor, the Dunbar plant diverted 300,000 tonnes, and the Polmadie plant 175,000 tonnes, of “post-recycling residual waste” from landfill. Every tonne of waste diverted resulted in a 41 per cent reduction in emissions and the two plants generated enough electricity to power over 96,000 homes, it said.

“Viridor is determined to play a leading role in transforming the waste sector so it can be a driver of creating a net zero, circular economy by 2050.”

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency estimated that carbon dioxide emissions from all kinds of waste incineration had risen by 51 per cent since 2016. But it pointed out that emissions of the greenhouse gas, methane, from landfill had decreased by 70 per cent in the same period.

“Scottish waste policy recognises a small but important role for energy from residual waste. As Scotland reduces, reuses and recycles more than ever before, waste which cannot be recycled is now being diverted from landfill” said a Sepa spokesperson.

“Emissions of carbon dioxide from this sector are small compared to that of the energy sector and these trends represent direct emissions of greenhouse gases from specific parts of the waste management sector and do not take into account efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle our waste. 

“What is clear is that in order to reduce the need for energy from waste facilities, we all must strive to reduce the waste we produce and recycle as much as possible.”

FCC Environment, which operates the Millerhill incinerator outside Edinburgh, declined to comment.

Photo Credit: iStock/cydeaw. This story was published in tandem with the Herald.

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