It’s Scotland’s rubbish. Not a catchy slogan – though our bins may be as productive as the oil-rich pockets of the North Sea. Recent reports suggest £2 million is thrown daily into landfill or burned in Britain, and the value is rising.
Until now, Scots have tended to lump rubbish together, stick it in landfill and ignore the fact methane escaping from these dumps is 20 times more climate-changing than carbon dioxide.
Hence the Scottish Government’s ambitious waste-reduction targets. From 2014, recyclable material (like aluminium, glass and cardboard) will be banned from landfill sites; food businesses must separate organic waste (hospitals and small business producers have until 2016); and councils must offer a food-waste collection service. In 2021, organic waste will also be banned from landfill.
Great – in theory. But three big questions remain: why won’t more Scots separate rubbish; will the public purse benefit and where will the un-recyclable residue end up? Until now, government hoped that a landfill tax – rising by £8 per tonne per annum – will prompt recycling council-tax payers to sort out recalcitrant neighbours. They haven’t.
Since 80 per cent of rubbish has a commercial value, government also hoped cash-strapped councils would pounce on recycling as a valuable new income stream. Instead, many local authorities have simply been firefighting angry public protests.
Last week, residents of two Edinburgh housing estates dumped rubbish bags outside council offices to protest against overflowing “general waste” bins following the switch from weekly to fortnightly collections. It’s not a pretty sight – but people rapidly get the message.
Currently, Edinburgh sends 70 per cent of waste to landfill and recycles only 30 per cent – and that represents a 32 per cent reduction (across the UK) in the amount of waste sent to dumps since the landfill tax began in 1997. Glasgow isn’t doing much better.
By contrast, Sweden sends 4 per cent to landfill, recycles 46 per cent and incinerates 49 per cent. The six municipalities served by the NSR recycling complex in the southern region of Skane have an even better record with 80 per cent of all material recycled, 2 per cent landfilled and 18 per cent incinerated.
How do they do it? NSR’s managing director Kim Olsson told a Scottish Parliament meeting last week that former Celtic star Henrik Larsson lives right beside the massive recycling, landfill, incinerator and bio-gas producing depot at Helsingborg – it is that fragrant. Every ten-year-old school pupil visits; they are the region’s recycling evangelists.
Residents pay more for frequent collection and highly visible bin stickers identify miscreants who don’t separate waste in the bespoke bins issued by NSR with eight sections.
Waste is further separated at the NSR plant and food waste goes to an anaerobic digester producing biogas for cars and biofertiliser piped straight to neighbouring fields. Biofertiliser is in high demand because of visibly improved productivity and the rising price (and diminishing world stock) of phosphorous-based alternatives.
Biogas production has been boosted by the Swedish government’s announcement that all transport must be fossil-fuel free by 2035. They also aim to convert “contaminated” plastics into tanker fuel to power ferries before 2020.
The stubborn 18 per cent of rubbish NSR can’t recycle is incinerated without any major objections from the Swedish public – safety levels are high, toxins are filtered out and 20 per cent of Swedish homes and businesses depend on rubbish-fuelled incinerators for affordable heat and electricity.
All of which raises a number of questions. Why is there massive and almost automatic objection to incinerators from the Scottish public and most green organisations?
According to Dr Colin Cunningham, of the Scottish Environmental Technology Network: “In the past, incinerators were polluters. But the Scots have retained a pathological objection to incinerators despite the fact modern plants work extremely well.”
Local campaigners object about the number of lorries taking rubbish to incinerators, though the same number have quietly moved rubbish to landfill sites for decades.
So the arrival of 2014 will present Scots with a stark choice. Do we: get more punitive about recycling (and risk alienating sections of the public altogether); continue to landfill (and pay the ever-escalating financial and climate-change hastening price); export our rubbish to Sweden (which currently imports 800,000 tonnes of rubbish annually); or encourage more visible, local benefits from recycling like cheaper district heating from well-situated incinerators?
None of these are perfect green solutions but the latter may be the least-worst option for dealing with unrecycleable waste. Do we have the courage to embrace it?
And what about biogas and biofertiliser production – why can’t we get on with that before Scottish diesel-guzzling lorries can’t refuel in the biogas-friendly countries of Northern Europe? Swedish biofertiliser comes from “digestate” – the decomposed crud left in anaerobic digesters after biofuel gases have been removed. Heavy metals, toxins and animal food parts are screened out before the liquid digestate is spread on fields.
In the UK however, supermarkets have quality assurance agreements with food-producer groups to outlaw products from digestate-enhanced fields. Why? It seems we’ve got the carelessness and low standards that once produced foot and mouth, BSE and CJD to thank for that. Scots – quite literally – don’t want to get their hands dirty. So we don’t care if precious raw material is dumped, not carefully screened for reuse – better “safe than sorry”. That’s a cop-out.
Confident, canny councils everywhere could be hitting green objectives and extracting hard cash from materials currently regarded as smelly rubbish. Instead, hesitant, cash-strapped local authorities in Scotland have been holding their noses and handing the whole recycling venture – risk, priorities, control and profits – to private companies via innovation-stifling 25-year contracts.
Who’s running who? And who has the courage to change tack and champion publicly-owned recycling services that could soon help finance vital local services?