Is Scotland on its way to zero waste?

Written by: RWW | Published:

The news Waste (Scotland) Regulations are six months old this month. Freelance writer, David Burrows takes a look at how the ambitious changes are bedding in.

It was about this time last year that I chaired RWW’s Food Waste 2013 event here in Edinburgh. The focus was the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2014; a gear-change in resource policy designed to accelerate the country’s journey towards zero waste and leave England, in particular, trailing in its green wake. The cabinet secretary for the environment, Richard Lochhead. had in fact just been named ‘Resource Revolutionary of the Year’ for his role in the policy, which had been swept through parliament at surprisingly high speed. 

“Our waste can be a valuable resource but only when it is properly managed,” he said at the turn of the year. “These important regulations will help change the way we regard our waste, and it is my belief that a positive shift in attitude will deliver environmental and financial benefits for all of us.”

Pre-2014 Scotland was spending an estimated £95m on landfill taxes to dispose of recyclable materials worth approximately £97m. More broadly, it has been suggested that the new regulations could save Scottish businesses and organisations some £2.9bn. 

The first tranche of changes in January this year require businesses to present five materials separately for collection: paper, card, glass, plastic and metal. 

Those producing more than 50kg of food waste now have to arrange for that to be collected separately too. The regulations not only impose new rules on waste contractors, local authorities and businesses, but new targets: 70% recycling by 2025 is the mark; a particularly ambitious one given that the proposed 40% by 2010 was missed. 

Indeed, a target is one thing; hitting it is quite another. In June, Scottish ministers came under fire for missing statutory targets for cutting carbon emissions for the third year in a row. Alex Salmond, the first minister, has repeatedly touted Scotland’s Climate Change Act as the most ambitious in the world, and there are similar messages coming from his environment secretary on waste.  

Are businesses aware of the changes? 

How are they adapting? Are waste contractors coping with increased demand for services and what have been the early teething problems? Jamie Pitcairn is Ricardo-AEA director in Scotland. 

He says: “The new regulations are six months old. Are they working? The simple answer is ‘yes’. They have certainly generated a much needed re-focusing on waste and in particular segregation and prevention. I’ve seen a much improved performance by Scottish businesses as a direct consequence of the regulations which is a very positive outcome.”

Eleanor Strain, senior policy officer at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is also happy with how things have gone. She points to the huge amount of engagement work that SEPA and Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) carried out in the run-up to the changes, leading to the successfully high levels of compliance. 

“We conducted a sample of business compliance audits in January and February [and found that almost] three out of four [74%] were compliant with the regulations which is very encouraging,” she explains.

There are sectors more up to speed than others, however 80% of the larger food businesses are compliant, but this drops to 66% among leisure and entertainment firms, says Strain. Smaller companies are also proving much harder to reach, Strain admits, with half of cafés and restaurants unaware there have been any changes at all.

Some contractors admit they have spent hours with clients explaining the new rules and the benefits to their businesses. “One of the challenges so far has been the amount of time we have had to spend with each customer to explain the regulations in layman’s terms and then show them the cost benefits of segregating the waste into recyclable material,” says Vincent Igoe, MD
at Olleco Scotland.

Mañana, mañana

Biffa has encountered similar issues. Gary Moore, the company’s regional general manager for Scotland and Northern Ireland, was surprised by the “overwhelming number” of customers who had left things to the last minute. “Many customers have been proactive and worked in partnership with us in dealing with the new regulations, however the ‘mañana, mañana ’ factor kicked in with a number of customers who postponed changes in services until the very last minute, despite having been contacted and fore-warned about the pending changes. This had quite an impact operationally due to the significant demand for new services, stretching container stocks and leading to additional resource,” he adds.

It was always going to be harder to reach the smallest firms and, with budgets under constant pressure, it’s no surprise the big waste producers have been the early targets. 

Speaking at the RWW conference last year, SEPA national operations waste unit manager Adrian Bond, explained: “We are realistic. We know we won’t have full compliance by January 1. We’ll be looking to businesses to help them find sensible solutions [to separate their waste]. There is a level we want people to get to,” he added, and that will require “sensible steps”.

Some see SEPA’s approach so far as a “light touch”, with no talk as yet of enforcement action for those breaking the rules. Strain denies this. “We wouldn’t say it’s a light touch at all. We use a proportionate approach and are continuing to ensure that businesses and waste contractors are compliant.” 

She admits that there have been “a number” of intelligence reports regarding certain service providers that they are following up; this includes the provision of single bin collections which is a definite ‘no-no’ in the new era. “We have a close eye on them,” she affirms.

Size is also a factor in another early issue. This concerns the rural exemptions, in which areas with a population of less than 30,000 people, and with a drive of over 30 minutes to a settlement of 10,000 or more, are not required to separate their food waste for separate collection. 

Ricardo-AEA’s Pitcairn says this is certainly an area that the steering group, led by CIWM, has identified as a headache. He explains: “It creates a significant barrier to businesses in these [exempted] areas that are keen to recycle their organic waste because there’s no critical mass for collections. This situation will be exacerbated in 2016 when the threshold to recycle food falls from 50kg to 5kg.”

Grant Keenan, MD at Keenan Recycling, tends to agree. “I believe there is still huge potential to capture large tonnages of food waste that is currently going to landfill in the exempt areas. 

“We have seen the waste management industry rise to the challenge, investing large sums of money in infrastructure along with bespoke collection vehicles.  

“Encompassing these large, currently exempt towns and villages into the regulations would dramatically increase the Scottish Government’s recycling figures and would be a big step forward in easing the task of complying with the 2020 deadline of banning all organic waste from landfill,” he adds.

That’s the long game. 

A year on from the RWW conference in Edinburgh and six months into the Scotland (Waste) Regulations 2014 and, as Viridor strategic sales manager for Scotland Graeme Milne puts it: “We’re in a good place”. 

There are hurdles to overcome and exemptions to be ironed out, but Scotland appears to be well on its way towards the Holy Grail of zero waste. 


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