Ten new waste incinerators ‘will threaten recycling targets’

Plans to treble the amount of waste burnt in ten new incinerators across Scotland will prevent the Scottish Government from meeting its recycling targets, campaigners are warning.

Companies are building or proposing waste incinerators in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, Dundee, Aberdeen and elsewhere. Together they could burn nearly two million tonnes of waste a year.

Friends of the Earth Scotland argues that a large proportion of household waste could end up being burnt instead of recycled. Incineration is “spiralling out of control” and will jeopardise government targets to boost recycling, it says.

The waste industry, however, insists that there is a “pressing need” for more incinerators to burn waste that is not “economically recyclable”. It argues that there is “no inherent conflict” between incineration and recycling.

There are currently five waste incinerators operating in Scotland with a combined capacity to burn 788,000 tonnes of waste a year. They are in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Dunbar and Shetland.

Research by Friends of the Earth Scotland has identified ten new incinerators that are under construction, due to be built, the subject of a planning application, or have planning permission. If they all go ahead, they will have the capacity to burn an additional 1.9 million tonnes of waste a year.

New incinerators are being built at Baldovie in Dundee, East Tullos in Aberdeen, Westfield in Fife, Oldhall in Irvine, and at Grangemouth. Others are planned for Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, Glenfarg in Perth and Kinross, Drumgray in North Lanarkshire, North Cardonald in Glasgow and Killoch in Cumnock.

Waste incinerators in Scotland

IncineratorCompanyStatusCapacity (tonnes a year)
Baldovie, DundeeMVV Environmentopen110,000
Dunbar, East LothianViridoropen300,000
Millerhill, EdinburghFCC Environmentopen155,000
Polmadie, GlasgowViridoropen200,000
Lerwick, ShetlandShetland Heat & Poweropen23,000
Baldovie, DundeeMVV Environmentbeing built110,000
East Tullos, AberdeenNess Energybeing built150,000
Earls Gate, GrangemouthBrockwell Energybeing built216,000
Westfield, FifeBrockwell Energydue to be built200,000
Oldhall, Irvine, AyrshireDoveryarddue to be built180,000
Inverurie, AberdeenshireAgile Energy Recoveryplanning application200,000
Glenfarg, Perth and KinrossBinn Groupplanning application84,900
Drumgray, North LanarkshireFCC Environmentplanning application300,000
North Cardonald, GlasgowFortum Glasgowplanning permission350,000
Killoch, Cumnock, AyrshireBarr Environmentalplanning permission120,000
Source: Friends of the Earth Scotland

The total capacity of all 15 existing and planned incinerators will amount to 2.7 million tonnes of waste a year. This is greater than the 2.4 million tonnes of waste currently produced by households every year.

As well as burning household waste, incinerators can burn waste from industry and commerce. But Friends of the Earth Scotland is concerned they will burn so much household waste that recycling targets will be breached.

Scotland is committed to recycling 70 per cent of household waste by 2025. In 2018, the last year for which figures are available, the recycling rate was just under 45 per cent, down nearly one per cent on 2017.

Friends of the Earth Scotland is calling for a moratorium on the building of new incinerators. “Scotland’s incineration capacity is spiralling out of control,” said the environmental group’s circular economy campaigner, Sarah Moyes.

“We are locking ourselves into decades of sending useful materials up in smoke, as well as creating a barrier to moving to a circular economy by creating a never-ending demand for waste as fuel, diverting it from re-use and recycling.”

She warned that the increase in incineration was “a major threat” to Scotland’s recycling targets. “It’s difficult to see how we can possibly continue to increase our recycling rates when we are accelerating towards a future of burning our waste instead,” she argued.

Moyes also pointed out that incinerators caused climate pollution. According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, approaching a million tonnes of carbon dioxide was released by the incineration of municipal waste in 2018.

There is absolutely no place for incineration as a solution for tackling the climate crisis.

Sarah Moyes, Friends of the Earth Scotland

“There is absolutely no place for incineration as a solution for tackling the climate crisis,” added Moyes. She described the Scottish Government’s waste policy as “incoherent” because there were no incentives to reduce overconsumption and recycling rates were falling.

She said: “Instead of leaving it to the market, the Scottish Government needs to urgently get a grip of waste policy and stop any more incinerators from being built.”

Concerns about increases in incineration have also been been voiced by one of Scottish ministers’ leading waste advisers. Ian Gulland, the chief executive of the Zero Waste Scotland agency, agreed that the case for a tax on incinerators was getting stronger.

“We need to think about that and ensure that we are not locking ourselves into an unsustainable future that is based on incineration,” he told MSPs on Holyrood’s environment committee on 22 September 2020.

The Scottish Greens accused ministers of being “clueless” on incineration by failing to use their planning and taxation powers. “As a result there is now a free-for-all in incinerator schemes,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“Instead of undermining Scotland’s credibility by locking us into decades of incineration, the Scottish Government must act now to prevent this expansion and refocus efforts on waste prevention and recycling.”

The campaign group, UK Without Incineration Network, argued that incinerators didn’t help to create a society in which resources were valued and nothing was wasted. “This unwelcome increase in Scotland’s waste incineration capacity is undermining the whole notion of a zero waste Scotland,” said the network’s coordinator, Shlomo Dowen.

“Incineration has no place in a circular economy. It is obvious that the money earmarked for building new incinerators should instead be invested in reduction, reuse and recycling.”

Louise Batchelor, an environmental campaigner who lives near the incinerator proposed for Westfield in Fife, argued that incinerators threatened to undo all the effort people have put in to recycling. “It makes me so angry that Scotland is drifting down this senseless path towards building huge, polluting incinerators,” she said.

“Wherever there are incinerators recycling goes down and those communities unlucky enough to live near them have to suffer the noise and dirt from heavy trucks bringing the waste, as well as from the plants themselves.”

There is simply no inherent conflict with the waste hierarchy or recycling.

Stephen Freeland, Scottish Environment Services Association

But Scottish Environmental Services Association (SESA), which represents waste companies, pointed out that burning waste produced energy. “Energy from waste is currently the most sustainable option for dealing with Scotland’s combustible residual waste – those wastes left over after all economically recyclable materials have been collected for recycling,” said the association’s policy adviser, Stephen Freeland.

“It helps to reduce Scotland’s carbon footprint and contributes to our energy mix and energy security, providing reliable, decentralised, low-carbon electricity and heat to businesses and homes. Furthermore, energy from waste keeps waste management costs down for Scottish local authorities.”

He argued that there was a “pressing need” for additional incinerator capacity in Scotland. SESA has previously highlighted concerns that Scotland faced a one million tonne “waste gap” to meet its aim of banning waste from being dumped as landfill.

Freeland added: “There is simply no inherent conflict with the waste hierarchy or recycling. Separating materials for recycling and reprocessing should be prioritised over energy recovery where there are markets for those materials, but energy recovery is clearly preferred over landfill for non-recyclable, combustible material.”

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) also defended the uses of incinerators. “Local government is committed to developing the circular economy and a zero waste society but the climate crisis requires difficult, long term decisions,” said a Cosla spokesperson.

“Whilst we are committed to innovative green solutions, energy from waste has been an important part of Scotland’s waste infrastructure for years and this will need to continue even as we continue to invest as a country in the reuse and recycling of materials.”

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) described recycling as a “Scottish success story” with overall recycling rates increasing to more than 60 per cent in 2018. The carbon impact of all waste management in Scotland was 30 per cent less than it was in 2011, the agency said.

“While the household waste recycling rate did fall in 2018, householders produced 55,574 tonnes less waste,” added a Sepa spokesperson. That resulted in a hundred thousand tonnes less carbon dioxide than in 2017.

“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,” the spokesperson added.
“Scottish waste policy recognises a small but important role for energy from residual waste. The choice isn’t between recycling or energy recovery, but rather a firm focus on improving recycling with energy recovery from what’s left over.”

Sepa also pointed out that applying for and getting planning consent didn’t automatically result in incinerators being built. “Of the 15 municipal waste incinerators that were in the planning system in 2011, only four were constructed,” Sepa said.

“Where new facilities do come forward, Sepa will ensure they are designed and operated to high technical standards and meet strict emission limits to protect the environment and human health.”

The Scottish Government highlighted a recommendation from climate advisers that the disposal of biodegradable waste to landfill should be banned by 2025. “We have ambitious targets to improve the way we manage materials by reducing waste, increasing recycling and keeping materials at a higher value for longer,” said a government spokesperson.

“Our commitment to becoming a net-zero society by 2045 is unwavering. The programme for government includes an investment of £70 million to improve refuse collection infrastructure and develop a new route map to reduce waste and improve recycling as part of plans to drive a thriving circular economy.”

Photo thanks to iStock/MaZiKab. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

Update: After this story was published the waste firm, Viridor, made the following comment on 29 September 2020:

“Viridor’s Glasgow Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre at Polmadie and Energy Recovery Facility at Dunbar both use state-of-the-art technology to extract recyclable material from general waste and turn non-recyclable waste into low carbon electricity through gasification.

“This technology is vastly different to ‘incineration’ as it uses a mixture of anaerobic digestion to break down organic waste, releasing methane for fuel to generate electricity. Its Advanced Conversion Facility uses refuse derived fuel, a gas created from general waste, which is captured and combusted to generate steam. This steam powers a turbine to generate renewable electricity which is exported to the national grid.

“Incineration consumes waste without producing anything of value. Energy recovery, the technology used to divert non-recyclable waste from landfill at both sites, offers the ability to generate heat and power from that which is currently not recyclable.”

  1. Not all of the Waste to Energy plants are designed to treat household waste. Some are for industrial and commercial waste which comprises up to 82% of the waste stream. In addition to being restricted by SEPA permit, to producing energy from non-recyclable waste, many plants are proposing to put surplus heat to district heating schemes further reducing the carbon impact of tens of thousands of individual gas or oil burners which burn fossil fuels at varying levels of efficiency. This combination of services allied to district heating is common in northern Europe and Denmark leads the way. Yes, waste reduction needs to be tackled more seriously and vigorously by all. Many householders get a ‘feel good ‘ factor by using materials once and then filling their recycling bin. Parkinson’s Law comes into effect encouraged by councils who issue numerous cavernous bins. The ban on landfill in Scotland as from Jan 2021, had to be delayed for four years due to the lack of alternative treatment within Scotland. In any event, landfill is not disposal but simply long term storage which will have to be treated at some time in the future to avoid its polluting potential. Loads of smokescreens being created but certainly not from efficient, closely regulated, combined heat and power, Waste to Energy Plants

  2. We might indeed resolve the issue of waste by burning it but in the process created a greater evil in the form of toxic emissions that neither contribute to climate change nor protect our health, farming and food economy and the environment in which we live and work. Are the risks worth it? I don’t believe they are and the sooner we wake up to the threat of these incinerators the better.

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