Role of Incineration in Waste Hierarchy

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16th June 2022.

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Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The next item of business is a statement by Lorna Slater on the role of incineration in the waste hierarchy. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

Finding better ways to manage the waste that our society is creating, and ways to reduce its total amount, are a key part of moving towards our vision for Scotland’s circular economy and of tackling the twin climate and biodiversity crises. Delivering that vision requires radical action over the next decade. This is an exciting time, as we accelerate our move towards a zero-waste circular economy in Scotland.

In November, I set out a range of actions that we would take in the short term, including introducing a circular economy bill, delivering Scotland’s deposit return scheme and undertaking a review of the role of incineration in Scotland’s waste hierarchy. I am pleased to say that the complementary consultations on proposals for a route map to deliver a circular economy in Scotland and on proposals for legislation in a circular economy bill have now been published. I hope that all members will take the opportunity to feed into those consultations and encourage their constituents to do the same.

Our primary focus is on preventing material and products from becoming waste, through recycling and processing. However, it is equally critical that we correctly manage the unavoidable and unrecyclable waste that we produce, as we move to a circular economy.

Scotland’s progress in reducing emissions in the waste and resources sector over the past 20 years has been striking. In 2019, waste and resources sector emissions were more than 30 per cent lower than in 2011, and 73 per cent lower than in 1998. Together, we have taken significant strides in reducing the amount of residual waste that we produce, through efforts to tackle our throwaway culture and promote recycling. However, Scotland still produces around 4.5 million tonnes of residual waste—black bag waste that typically goes to landfill or incineration.

Policies such as the Scottish landfill tax and the forthcoming ban on the landfilling of biodegradable municipal waste have been successful in diverting waste away from landfill and encouraging action further up the waste hierarchy. Indeed, in 2020, Scotland exceeded the European Union target for diverting biodegradable municipal waste from landfill. However, we are not reusing or recycling as much of that material as we would like and, recently, there has been an increase in the amount of household waste that has been incinerated, which has closely matched the reduction in such waste going to landfill.

We can and must do better. Around 60 per cent of residual waste in our black bags from homes and businesses around Scotland consists of recyclable materials. Our on-going policies and the additional measures that are proposed in our consultations will make it easier for householders to recycle the right materials, and will reduce the numbers of unrecyclable products on the market, which will drive down the amount of residual waste that we produce.

However, it is important to recognise that, as we transition to a circular economy, we will still produce residual waste that needs to be managed in a way that minimises environmental impact without hindering our progress towards a circular economy. That is why, in November last year, I appointed Dr Colin Church to lead an independent review of the role of incineration in the waste hierarchy. I am grateful to Dr Church for undertaking that review, and to all those who took the time to provide evidence and engage in conversations with him during its course.

Dr Church set the detailed scope for the review within agreed parameters, which included a prioritisation of the national capacity requirements for municipal residual waste; consideration of the societal impacts of residual waste treatment, including health and community impacts; and consideration of how emissions from existing infrastructure could be reduced.

Members will be aware that on 10 May we published Dr Church’s report, which sets out some valuable findings and recommendations. I hope that members agree that the scope and approach that Dr Church adopted has provided a robust report that provides a solid evidence base to inform discussions and decisions on how we manage municipal residual waste in a way that minimises environmental impacts.

The review makes 12 recommendations that are based on key findings around capacity, the strategic planning of waste infrastructure, data and community engagement. We support and will take action to deliver all of Dr Church’s recommendations for the Scottish Government. Many of the recommendations are also relevant for local authorities and the wider waste industry. I encourage local authorities and industry to consider what actions they will take and how they could work with us to respond to relevant recommendations.

The review also makes two provisional recommendations on decarbonisation, pending the completion of further detailed analysis of options to decarbonise existing residual waste infrastructure. That work has been commissioned and is expected to be delivered by the end of the year. I am pleased that Dr Church has agreed to remain in his role as independent chair, and I understand that he is planning to hold additional stakeholder engagement sessions for that work. I am sure that he will shortly let stakeholders know how they can get involved.

We have published our response to the 12 full recommendations and I will provide a summary of some of the key areas today. Although it is clear from the report that incineration has a role to play in managing, in a sanitary way, unavoidable and unrecyclable waste, the review rightly recognises that the only way to stop any negative environmental impacts from residual waste is to prevent that waste from arising in the first place.

Our draft route map sets out proposals to minimise the amount of residual waste that we produce, move to a circular economy and greatly reduce the need for incineration in Scotland. In relation to the incineration capacity that we need in Scotland, Dr Church found that although there is likely to be a temporary undercapacity of residual waste treatment in Scotland in 2025, when the ban on landfilling biodegradable municipal waste comes into force, Scotland faces the real risk of overcapacity by 2027 if all the incineration plants that have planning permission are built to schedule. Based on those findings, the review recommends that no further planning permission is granted to incineration infrastructure within the scope of the review—that is, incinerators that treat municipal waste—with some exceptions.

We accept that the risk of overcapacity is real and unpalatable, and that further action is required. That is why we will work within existing statutory frameworks to set out clearly that the Scottish Government does not support the development of further municipal waste incineration capacity in Scotland, with very limited exceptions. New national planning policy will be introduced through national planning framework 4, which will be presented to the Scottish Parliament for approval later this year.

In addition, the notification direction, requiring local authorities to alert ministers to planning applications for new incineration facilities and notify ministers if they are minded to grant planning permission for incineration facilities, will remain in place. There will of course be some very limited exceptions to that. The review highlights the challenges that rural and island communities face in dealing with their residual waste. We will continue to support all local authorities in making the most appropriate provisions for the landfill ban.

The review also recommends that the Scottish Government takes a more strategic approach to planning and deploying waste management facilities, and as part of that, develops a cap to indicate the residual waste treatment capacity that is required in Scotland. We will identify options to develop such a cap as part of a residual waste plan, which we will publish by 2024. It is imperative for planning decisions that the cap is robust, and the review noted challenges around data, recommending that the Scottish Government develops better waste management data, and improves its capacity to model future trends.

In response, we will build upon on-going work, including implementing a digital waste tracking service, and on-going and proposed compositional analyses by undertaking a feasibility study on modelling options to forecast future trends and develop an indicative cap.

I was disappointed to read the review’s finding that communities do not always receive the authentic and committed engagement from local authorities and industry that they deserve. That is unacceptable. We will achieve our vision for a circular economy only by involving everyone in important conversations, particularly on waste management. In line with the review’s recommendations, we will work with community groups and local authorities to facilitate the co-production of guidelines for effective community engagement by the end of 2023.

Our published response sets out in further detail additional actions that we intend to take to address the issues and recommendations that are set out in Dr Church’s report. I intend to incorporate as many of those actions as possible into our final waste route map, taking account of any feedback that is provided through the on-going consultation.

I look forward to working with colleagues in the chamber and all stakeholders to develop and deliver our route map and circular economy bill and, together, accelerating our move towards a zero-waste circular economy in Scotland.

The Presiding Officer:

The minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

I thank the minister for advance sight of her statement, and I thank Dr Church for carrying out his review.

Incineration should be a last resort, but the minister confirmed in her statement that it is business as usual for burning waste. There is a missed opportunity, and the minister has done the bare minimum on incineration by declining new planning permissions but being happy for the massive overcapacity that is already approved to go ahead. I warned the Government as far back as 2017, and even its own advisers at Zero Waste Scotland issued a warning, but the Government did not heed the warnings then, and it is not heeding them now. Instead, it is risking Scotland becoming the ashtray of Europe.

The Scottish National Party and the Greens now face the prospect of using taxpayer funds to buy out local authority contracts, or even of importing waste to feed the overcapacity. Not content with Scotland being the ashtray of Europe, the SNP could turn us into the dump of Europe, too.

We know that the minister accepts those arguments because, in her manifesto, she promised to

“Oppose the construction of new incinerators as they alleviate the pressure to reduce waste, cause air pollution and are bad for the climate.”

Can the minister explain why she has abandoned that promise and is content to allow the huge capacity that is already in the planning system to go ahead?

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

I feel that Maurice Golden has not understood what is being announced today. Last year, the Scottish Greens made a manifesto commitment to oppose the construction of new incinerators, and we have delivered on that—and more. As I have set out, we are fully implementing the recommendations of the independent review that I commissioned, which includes there being no further planning permission granted for incineration facilities, and the setting of an indicative cap. We will develop an indicative cap to support future planning and investment decisions, following the improvement in data.

The notification direction will remain in place. That means that local authorities will not be able to grant consent unless ministers have cleared them to do that.

Maurice Golden might recall that a similar notification direction was used previously, and successfully, to give the effect of a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas extraction.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

I thank the minister for advance sight of her statement.

Although Labour welcomes Dr Church’s report and recommendations as far as they go, it should not have taken a review to tell the minister to implement her own manifesto commitments. That dithering has delayed further meaningful action.

The minister said that we will not see new national planning policy on incineration until NPF4 is presented to Parliament for approval later this year. Does she have confidence that the existing notification direction on planning permission for new incinerators is effective enough, given the fact that a new plant to burn waste plastics has been approved in West Dunbartonshire since publication of the review?

On Scotland’s appalling record on recycling, we saw the amount of waste that was being incinerated in the country increase, shockingly, by over 200 per cent between 2011 and 2020. Incineration of household waste increased by nearly 300 per cent.

Dr Church highlights that we will, from 2027, have overcapacity for incineration, even with a ban on planning permission for new plants, because existing plants for which permission has been granted will still be built. Slowing new capacity is one thing, but what will the minister do to reduce overcapacity?

Even though the report on the full environmental implications of existing incinerators has not yet been published, we know that our current incinerators are some of Scotland’s biggest polluters and need to be phased out sooner rather than later. That will not happen simply by banning the building of new incinerators.

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

We have launched a consultation into the development of a route map, which sets out our proposal to reduce residual waste. That is a position that we all want to get to. In order to manage the potential risk of overcapacity in the system, we will work within existing statutory and other frameworks that set out clearly that the Scottish Government does not, with very limited exceptions, support development of more municipal waste incineration capacity.

The notification direction, which will remain in place, requires planning authorities to alert Scottish ministers about new planning applications for incineration facilities, and to notify ministers if they are minded to grant planning permission for those facilities. I am sure that the member would agree with me that the best way to reduce the side effects and negative effects of dealing with residual waste is to ensure that we have the minimum amount of residual waste in the first place.

Photo of Elena Whitham Elena Whitham Scottish National Party

As we move to a circular economy and improve our waste-prevention activities—for example, through the recent removal of single-use plastics—and with an ever-increasing awareness of the vital need to reuse, reduce and recycle our domestic waste, does the minister agree that Dr Colin Church’s report lays bare that incineration should be a transitional technology that helps to bridge the gap between mass landfill and a low-waste, low-carbon and more circular economy? His capacity analysis shows that there is a real

“risk of long-term overcapacity beginning from 2026 or 2027, if all or most of the incineration capacity ... is built”.

With that in mind, does she agree that proposed developments that are still to be consented, such as the Killoch energy from waste facility in my constituency, should not be consented, as incineration infrastructure that is within the scope of the review.

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

The member’s description of incineration as “transitional technology” is quite right. Dr Church’s review makes it clear that incineration has a role to play in treating Scotland’s unavoidable unrecyclable municipal waste. However, that role is limited and we will, as we move to a circular economy, need significantly less residual waste treatment capacity.

Dr Church’s report also highlights that we need to mitigate the risk of overcapacity. The best way to do that is to ensure that we do not build more capacity than is necessary. I am aware that there is a live planning application with East Ayrshire Council. I cannot comment on the merits of the proposed development, because that could be prejudicial to the outcome of the decision-making process. However, under the current notification direction, if the council is minded to approve the application, it will be required to formally notify ministers, who would then consider whether to call in the application for their own determination or return it to the council to determine.

The Presiding Officer:

Before I take the next question, I have to insist on shorter questions and responses, or I will be unable to take all members who are interested in the matter.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

Dr Church’s review also called for a reduction

“in the proportion of recyclable materials in the residual waste” system. The Government’s 2013 recycling target was to recycle of 50 per cent of household waste. Statistics for 2020 show that only 42 per cent of that rubbish was recycled. That is the lowest level since 2013, which certainly is striking. When will Scotland reach the 2013 recycling target?

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

I thank the member for his interest in the matter. On 30 May, we launched our proposals to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises in Scotland by supporting our transition to zero waste and a circular economy. Those two consultations will help us in tackling the climate and biodiversity crises by preserving precious resources and cutting our waste.

Together, the consultations set out key proposed actions and the tools that we need in order to meet the targets.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

As the minister will know, an energy from waste facility is being constructed in my Aberdeen South and North Kincardine constituency, and will become a neighbour both to the Torry community and local businesses—some of which have significant energy costs associated with their nature and operation.

The facility potentially offers an opportunity to provide cheaper heating to businesses, as well as to residents, via a grid network.

Can I ask the minister for her support in ensuring that that kind of opportunity is fully utilised by project stakeholders, given the impact that energy price hikes have had on businesses and Scotland’s hardest-hit families, including many of my constituents—

The Presiding Officer:

I am afraid that that is an example of the kind of question that we do not have time for. If members could be markedly briefer, I would be very grateful.

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

We fully support the development of domestic and business heat networks. Dr Church concluded that promoting combined heat and power could play a role in decarbonising incineration facilities. We are providing £300 million, via Scotland’s heat network fund, to develop heat networks, which could, if they are well located, utilise waste heat.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

It is welcome that the Scottish Government has accepted the recommendations that were made in the review, although it remains unfortunate that the Scottish Greens have had to be forced, yet again, into backing a policy that they committed to supporting in their manifesto just last year. The announcement will be welcomed by campaigners who I have campaigned with many times at the Killoch site in Ochiltree, East Ayrshire. Given the report, surely the minister can categorically confirm that the notification direction on planning permission will mean that the proposed incinerator development at that site will not go ahead.

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

The member will know that I cannot comment on the merits of any particular proposed development. [


.] I am not allowed to comment on any particular development; that is against the rules.

I know that many members on the Labour benches will feel frustrated as they watch from the sidelines as Greens in government take real, determined action to deliver a greener Scotland, but for once perhaps they should welcome progress, rather than manufacture complaints. The Scottish Greens made a manifesto commitment last year to oppose the construction of new incinerators. We have delivered on that, and more.

As I have set out today—

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

—we are fully implementing the recommendations that were made in the independent review that I commissioned, which includes granting no further planning permission for incineration facilities, and setting an indicative cap.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I add my thanks to Dr Church.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats exposed how the SNP Government’s 2021 landfill ban was to be met by instead sending rubbish on lorries to be dumped in English landfill sites. Can the minister tell the Parliament whether, when the 2025 landfill ban comes into force in Scotland, rubbish will be exported to England for landfill or incineration?

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

I thank the member for that question. When considering solutions, the review made it clear that any short-term risks of undercapacity needed to be balanced with the long-term risks of overcapacity. The review also made it clear that incineration is not the only option for managing residual waste in the short term, and that the combined capacity of the facilities that are currently operating, are in development or have planning permission is more than enough to manage Scotland’s residual waste. We will continue to work with local authorities to provide technical, legal and procurement support to ensure that they have a solution in place by 2025.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

Will the minister join me in congratulating the Dovesdale action group, which was successful in its campaign to block the construction of a new incinerator in South Lanarkshire? Can she set out whether the Scottish Government can ensure that planning processes consider the potential for air pollution to be carried to nearby settlements, as that was a huge concern for the people of East Kilbride?

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

Of course, the member will know that I cannot comment on any particular planning application. In considering the evidence, which included a rapid evidence review that was conducted by Public Health Scotland, the review found that all forms of residual waste treatment pose risks to human health and the environment, so all need to be properly regulated in order to manage those risks.

The review also found that there is no compelling evidence that incineration is any worse than any other options when it is regulated well. Indeed, given the current stringent emissions standards, the evidence is that the air quality impacts are probably small. That said, the best way to minimise the health risks of residual waste treatment technology is to reduce the amount of residual waste that we produce through waste prevention, reuse and recycling.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I am delighted that there has been an effective ban on approvals for new incinerators since November last year, and that that has now been made permanent. That is what I have been campaigning for with local communities since 2017. I am proud that, with Greens in government, we are finally seeing an end to the incinerator free-for-all. What guidance is the Scottish Government offering councils in order to ensure that they can now deliver the effective ban on new incinerator applications going forward?

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

I thank the member for that question, and for the huge amount of campaigning and effort that he has put into the issue for many years. Dr Church’s review makes it clear that the best form of residual waste treatment is preventing waste from occurring in the first place. Right now, we are supporting local authorities to reduce the amount of residual waste that they produce—for example, through our £70 million recycling improvement fund to improve local authority recycling infrastructure.

I have already awarded £20.3 million to 13 local authorities to increase the quantity and quality of recycling, which marks the beginning of one of the biggest investments in recycling in Scotland in a generation. We are also—

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

We are also working closely with local authorities to support those that do not currently have solutions for the forthcoming ban on landfilling biodegradable and municipal waste.

Photo of Stephanie Callaghan Stephanie Callaghan Scottish National Party

Can the minister expand on how the Scottish Government will work within existing statutory and other frameworks to set out clearly that it does not support the development of further municipal waste incineration capacity in Scotland?

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

As the member will know, we have launched a consultation on the delivery of our route map, which aims to reduce the amount of waste that we need. Through that proposal, we will consider a strategic approach for residual waste infrastructure and how local authorities interact with that to implement necessary residual waste handling.

We will ensure that we take opportunities to embed a strategic approach to infrastructure in any relevant interventions that are taken forward under our route map following consultation.

Photo of Dean Lockhart Dean Lockhart Conservative

In her opening statement, the minister referred to EU regulations. A number of changes have recently been made to EU regulations in the area of incineration. Given the Scottish Government’s stated policy of keeping pace with EU laws, can the minister explain what differences currently exist in this area between regulations in Scotland and regulations at the EU level?

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

The member is correct that we intend to stay aligned, where possible, with EU law. I am happy to write to him with specific details on that point.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party

How can we ensure that any energy from the NESS plant that is currently being built in Aberdeen will be used to help folk out of fuel poverty?

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

We are providing grant funding through our low-carbon infrastructure transition programme to help develop a heat network that will distribute heat that is produced from the energy from waste plant to provide affordable warmth to consumers in the Torry area of Aberdeen.

Phase 1 is currently being constructed, and the Scottish Government will work closely with Aberdeen City Council as the network’s development continues.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

Despite the spin, the minister has left the door wide open for new incinerators. Underfunded planning authorities and battle-weary communities will have to continue to deal with the threat of new incinerators, including those that have been given consent but have not yet been built. Can she not at least be honest about that?

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

Again, I feel that the member has not understood the situation that we are in today.

The notification direction will remain in place. That means that local authorities will not be able to grant consent unless ministers have first given their authority to do so. I remind the member that a similar notification direction was used previously and successfully to give the effect of a moratorium on unconventional gas.

In implementing Dr Church’s recommendations, we will implement an indicative cap to support future planning and investment decisions following improvements in the data.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes the ministerial statement on the role of incineration in the waste hierarchy.