SNP and Greens ministers should “immediately” stop new waste incinerators being given planning permission and cap capacity, an independent review has set out.
Last year, the Scottish Greens were accused of “acting like bureaucrats and listening to their SNP bosses” after failing to bring forward a moratorium on halting large scale waste incinerators despite being in the party’s manifesto.
The party’s manifesto for last year’s Holyrood election pledged to “oppose the construction of new incinerators as they alleviate the pressure to reduce waste, cause air pollution and are bad for the climate”.
But instead, Greens Circular Economy Minister Lorna Slater ordered an independent review into the practice, falling short of a moratorium.
Up to ten new incinerators are either in the planning process or due to begin operations in the next few years.
These new incinerators could create the capacity for an extra 1.5 million tonnes of waste to be burned in Scotland, while the amount of waste burnt has increased by over 800,000 tonnes since 2011.
The review, carried out by waste expert Dr Colin Church has made 12 recommendations to ministers including that “effective immediately”, the Scottish Government “should ensure that no further planning permission (i.e. beyond that already in place) is granted to incineration infrastructure” unless it is “balanced by an equal or greater closure of capacity”.
The review calls on ministers to “urgently work with local authorities in remote and rural areas” where it will be difficult to meet to the ban, “to explore options that might, if fully justified, lead to the creation of a small amount of additional capacity”.
Ministers have also been criticised for the previous lack of engagment with local communities over waste incineration.
The recommendations also call on ministers to “rapidly seek further reductions” in the proportion of recyclable materials that are being sent to landfill or incineration and “develop an indicative cap that declines over time” for the amount of waste being burnt “as Scotland transitions towards a fully circular economy”.
In his review, Dr Church acknowledged “there is likely to be a capacity gap in 2025” for incineration of waste when a landfill ban comes into force.
He added that while the gap would be closed by Scotland meeting its waste and recycling aims, “stakeholders raised concerns about the likelihood of achieving these targets”.
Dr Church said that currently, “incineration is less damaging to the environment than landfill”, but warned that “increased incineration, changes to waste composition and wider decarbonisation will make this less favourable over time”.
The Scottish Government will set out its initial response to the review in June and will launch public consultations on a Circular Economy Bill and a waste route map this month.
Dr Church said: “The evidence I received shows that, whilst well-regulated incineration does have a role to play in managing unavoidable residual waste in Scotland, the capacity currently being proposed is likely to be more than needed, so a lot of it should not be built.
“For the proportion that is developed, the level and quality of engagement with local communities needs to be excellent, which unfortunately has not always been the case to date.
“There is also more that must be done to reduce the climate impacts of waste incineration, and I look forward to revisiting my provisional recommendations in this area in due course.”
Ms Slater added: “I would like to thank Dr Church for delivering this work, which will play a pivotal role in shaping Scotland’s future waste policy.
“We want to create a circular economy, where materials stay in use for as long as possible, and nothing is wasted. Only by increasing reuse and recycling can Scotland meet its net zero targets, and we will be publishing ambitious proposals to achieve this soon.
“It is clear from the review that although incineration has a role to play in managing Scotland’s unavoidable, unrecyclable residual waste in a safe way, that role is inevitably limited. As we transition to a circular economy, Scotland will need significantly less incineration capacity than is currently projected and it is vital that we do not have more capacity than we need.
“Dr Church has proposed some valuable recommendations and outlined some important considerations for how we can align the management of residual waste in Scotland with our net zero ambitions. We will consider the recommendations carefully and provide an initial response in June.”
Environmental campaigners have welcomed the recommendations.
Kim Pratt, circular economy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “This report shows that the alarming rise in incineration in Scotland must be stopped immediately – rapid action is needed to prevent the loss of valuable resources and stop the climate-wrecking emissions being caused by burning plastics.
“A ban on new incinerators is the first step in turning Scotland’s waste management system around, but it’s only half of the solution. The report makes it clear that more must be done to minimise waste and recycle as much as possible.”
She added: “Our current incinerators are some of Scotland’s biggest polluters so they must be phased out if Scotland is to meet its climate goals. It is concerning that the report does not include a detailed carbon assessment, given the direct threat of incinerators to our climate goals.
“Burning plastic releases more carbon than coal and the only way to cut emissions from incineration for good is to stop burning waste. We need to value resources properly, rather than taking from nature, using once then burning or burying the waste.”