SEPA blames slump in recycling rates on Covid-19

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has blamed a 2.9 percentage point reduction in household recycling rates in 2020 on the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the latest figures published this week, Scotland’s overall household waste recycling rate fell from 44.9% in 2019 to 42% in 2020.

The total amount of Scottish household waste recycled was 1.02 million tonnes, a decrease of 66,000 tonnes (6.1%) from 2019.

SEPA said it is likely that the impacts of Covid-19 were the main driver behind this reduction with many recycling centres shut during the reporting period. A slowdown in the construction industry also meant that less construction waste was recycled, it said.

Terry A’Hearn, chief executive at SEPA, said: “How we use resources in our homes, workplaces, public services and private sector can have a real impact on Scotland’s environment.  Whilst It’s positive that for a ninth consecutive year we see a move from landfill, the latest data does reflect the realism of the public health emergency.”

While recycling dropped, incineration levels increased with 1.26 million tonnes of waste incinerated in 2020 - an increase of 38,000 tonnes (3.1%) from 2019, and an increase of 855,000 tonnes (208%) from 2011.  

Meanwhile, the amount of waste landfilled fell significantly. Landfill waste amounted to 2.6 million tonnes in 2020, a reduction of 390,000 tonnes (13.0%) from 2019 and a reduction of 4.4 million tonnes (62.9%) from 2005. This is the ninth consecutive reduction in waste landfilled across Scotland. 

SEPA said the decrease was primarily due to more waste being diverted from landfill to energy from waste (EfW) and in part due to less waste being generated.

Much less soil was also landfilled in 2020 compared to the year before, which is likely a result of reduced construction activity in Scotland due to Covid-19 restrictions, according to SPEA.

Iain Gulland, the chief executive of the not-for-profit group Zero Waste Scotland, said: “There’s little doubt the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic hit recycling efforts in 2020. In particular, the closure of recycling centres in many areas seems to have had the greatest impact. 

“The good news is that the volume of materials collected for recycling at the kerbside increased, showing that there is a keen appetite to recycle more amongst householders.”