Teething troubles for Scotland's waste plan

A rush to meet the short-term targets in Scotland's waste strategy could result in investments which are poorly fitted to achieving longer-term targets, a report from the Scottish Parliament's Environment Committee has warned.1 The report also advocates new measures to tackle industrial and commercial wastes and promote waste reduction and reuse.

Scotland's waste plan was published in February, along with 11 area plans. Its main targets were to recycle or compost 38% of municipal waste by 2010 and 55% by 2020. The Scottish Executive has also set interim targets for 2006 to recycle or compost 25% of municipal waste and reduce landfilling of biodegradable waste collected by local authorities to 1.5 million tonnes (ENDS Report 338, pp 51-52 ).

The interim targets were intended to spur local authorities and other actors on the waste management scene into action. But the Environment Committee heard that they may be having undesirable effects.

"One of the biggest concerns heard in this inquiry," the report says, "is that a rush to achieve short-term solutions has the potential to force development in directions which help to meet immediate targets, but which may not be environmentally ideal or are not necessarily sustainable solutions for the long term."

Familiar complaints on this issue were that incinerators and long-term public/private partnerships and private finance initiative contracts were likely to compromise the capacity of Scotland's waste management arrangements to adapt to changing needs as the targets for 2010 and beyond draw closer.

Equally familiar, and working in the opposite direction, were complaints about the slowness of planning procedures and tensions between local authorities within the 11 area groups. The Committee itself warns of the "potential for delay as different local authorities within area groups attempt to resolve which authority will proceed to develop any major waste facilities required to deliver the area plan. This is a matter of some urgency if targets are to be met."

Such "short-term difficulties and apparent contradictions are perhaps inevitable," the Committee says. The challenge for the Executive is to "perform the difficult trick of managing the short term rush to gear up, whilst also ensuring that the choices made hold good - environmentally and economically - for the long term."

To help achieve this, the report urges the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to play an active role in ensuring that the options selected for local waste management solutions are the best for the long term. It also wants the Executive to explain how problems within the 11 areas in delivering waste infrastructure will be resolved, pending a review of the area boundaries within a year or so.

On incineration, the Committee's verdict is that the technology is likely to be the best environmental option "only in limited particular local circumstances, and must not be adopted simply to help meet short-term targets." Moreover, incineration should only be adopted if combined with energy recovery schemes such as district heating.

The Committee has it both ways on long-term contracts, urging the Executive to "examine carefully" how to achieve appropriately stable conditions to encourage investment while ensuring that waste management arrangements can adapt to changing needs and do not create perverse incentives to generate waste.

Other key recommendations include:

  • Industrial and commercial waste: Scotland's statutory targets cover only municipal waste, production of which amounts to some 3.2 million tonnes per year. There are no targets for the 9 million tonnes of industrial and commercial waste, almost all of which goes to landfill.

    SEPA intends to report on options for dealing with the non-municipal waste stream around 2006, but the Committee was told that the failure to integrate policies for dealing with the two main components together was likely to lead to inefficiencies and missed opportunities.

    The Committee agrees. It says that the "earliest possible integration of municipal and non-municipal perspectives is essential to allow waste management to develop in a coherent manner and avoid duplication of effort." The report recommends that challenging targets should be set for reduction of landfilling of key waste streams, with early candidates being building and construction waste, newsprint and tyres.

  • Waste reduction: The national waste plan sets an aspirational target to reduce municipal waste growth to zero from 2010, but actually assumes that waste volumes will continue to increase by 1.5% per year from 2010 to 2020.

    The Committee concurs with witnesses who argued for more action higher up the waste hierarchy. It says that targets for waste reduction and reuse are essential "to avoid Scotland's difficulties in changing waste management becoming ever more acute." It urges the Executive to incorporate such target in the plan as a matter of urgency.

    The report also asks the Executive to set out its views on how Scotland might move towards a "zero waste" strategy, as part of a strategic shift towards treating waste as a resource.

  • Composting: Meeting the 2006 target for composting would require the provision of about 30 plants treating 10,000 tonnes of waste per year. However, the report challenges the thrust towards centralised composting. It says that, "wherever possible", facilities should be provided for composting to be carried out at domestic or local level in order to minimise transport impacts.

  • Landfills: Scotland currently has 110 municipal waste landfills, but these are likely to be reduced to 45 within four years. The inquiry underlined concerns that replacement facilities will not be developed in time, forcing waste haulage over longer distances.

    At the same time, the report says, landfills have given rise to "huge issues of environmental justice for local communities", creating several notorious cases of odour pollution and nuisance. The Committee urges the Executive to consider setting a minimum separation distance between new landfills and residential areas, and to ensure improved enforcement of planning and environmental conditions for landfill sites.

  • Charging: The Scottish Environmental Services Association, representing the waste industry, told the Committee that direct charging for waste collections would be a powerful incentive for households to reduce waste volumes. Other witnesses were concerned at the social implications and potential for increased fly-tipping, and Environment Minister Ross Finnie was "extremely cautious" about direct charging.

    The Committee itself advocates a cautious approach. SEPA is planning pilot studies with a range of household incentives, and the report recommends that these should be developed carefully to assess the socio-economic impacts of charges and to identify ways in which fly-tipping might be avoided.

    The report also recommends that the Executive should produce an action plan and consider tougher targets for packaging waste reduction and recycling than those currently set by EU legislation, and prepare another action plan to use public procurement to help develop markets for recycled products.

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