Mining the waste goldrush: Carrot and stick on the road to 2025
Millions of tonnes of waste are being thrown away every year – be it from the lowly black bin bags put outside the door by householders, or the rubble, bricks or off-cuts produced in constructing new homes.
On paper, the Scottish Government’s plan is quite simple, if ambitious. It wants to cut levels of waste by 70 per cent by 2025. But in practice, it is about more than that. Its aim is to make the very creation of this waste in the first place an “alien concept”.
In May the Scottish Parliament passed its Waste (Scotland) Regulations, which have stipulated the need for a drastic reduction in the volume of rubbish that can be sent either to be buried in landfill sites, or burned in incinerators.
Businesses will have to separate paper and card, plastics, metal and glass by January 2014. Councils will have to increase kerbside collections for recyclable materials as well.
The Government – and its agency, Zero Waste Scotland – is clear in its plan, it has to change the mindset of people to see rubbish not as waste, but as a resource, and to think carefully before even getting to the stage where they throw it away.
It is why the Government is ready to reintroduce its plans to ban the free carrier-bags given away by supermarkets and is putting plans for a levy, back out to consultation again in the next few weeks.
Schemes are already up-and-running elsewhere, for example, in Wales, and Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead has said that although there had been a lot of headway made in purely voluntary measures, it was now time for the next step.
He told Holyrood he wanted the Scotland of the future to be unrecognisable to that of the present, in terms of how it treats its rubbish.
“In that different Scotland we live in, everything will be seen as a valuable resource,” he said. “We will all want to avoid waste at any cost.
“So the idea of having free single-use plastic bags in the local supermarket at that point in time will be an alien concept. The imposition of a levy, phasing out free plastic bags in any case, is one way we can help change consumer behaviour and involve everyone in the green campaign, because we all go to the shops, we all use bags.
“Hopefully, that changing behaviour will then translate into other areas of life because people start thinking “why is it that we’re getting rid of single-use free plastic bags?” and start thinking about how they live their lives and the way they use resources.
“The throw-away society they’ve enjoyed up until now will become more alien and unacceptable.” The consultation will include the amount of a possible levy, but he said there had been no decision taken on how much this would be – although it would be a matter of pennies – the income it generated would then be put to environmental use, although it is not certain whether this would be for the store or the Government to spend.
Lochhead added: “We’ve made great progress in the last two or three years, there’s about half the free-use plastic bags in the supermarkets as there were before. We’ve been working with the supermarkets to introduce voluntary measures to reduce use. Now, like a number of other countries, we feel we should go a step further.
“There will be exceptions, of course, as in other countries for maybe food, but standard, single use bags that we get at the supermarket, that’s what we’re targeting.” He said he wanted to see all five million Scots, both at home and in their businesses, involved in supporting the vision of a waste-free society and added: “The thrust of what the Zero Waste policy is all about, is recognising that what has traditionally been seen as waste is increasingly valuable and people will pay for it. What people used to put in the bucket, and then to landfill, people now will pay for, it’s a massive economic benefit, but obviously, it brings environmental benefits at the same time because it’s not going into landfill and causing emissions.” The bag tax is just one of the ‘stick’ options aimed at forcing a change in behaviour. Another is landfill tax, which has been rising progressively and will be £80 per tonne by April 2014.
Lochhead says this has been a huge success in bringing about behaviour change.
In addition, under the Scotland Act, from April 2015, the Scottish Parliament will be empowered to introduce and manage taxes on the disposal of waste to landfill.
But on the flip side, more innovation has been promised to make it easier to take materials out of the waste stream. The most recent example of this has been the onset of nappy recycling, using some of the 450,000 disposable nappies which are sent to landfill a day and turning them into useful items, like garden furniture.
Zero Waste Scotland has this year invested £8m in councils and commercial waste management firms, including £5m to support the roll-out of new food waste collections as well as £750,000 to help increase services to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
It is also encouraging collaborative recycling efforts to areas to make it easier for SMEs to recycle, with pilot projects in Bathgate, Falkirk, Clackmannanshire, Alloa and Dumfries and Galloway.
The food recycling effort is a particularly important project, as its aim is not just to increase recycling rates, but simultaneously, to make people think about the amount of food they are throwing away.
Ian Gulland, director of Zero Waste Scotland, said: “Previous work we’ve undertaken suggests the average family wastes about £430 a year on food that they buy and don’t consume.
“Anecdotal evidence would show that when you actually go out and start collecting food waste separately, a lot of that is whole food items bought and wasted, so therefore, you actually see a reduction in food waste.” The waste collected by local authorities while possibly the most high profile, is also the smallest, percentage-wise. Of the waste produced in Scotland a year, about 3m tonnes is from households, compared to about 6m tonnes of commercial waste and double that again from the construction and demolition industries.
But the real “carrot”, particularly for businesses, is in realising the marketable value of waste and “closing the loop” by bringing the economic benefits of recycling back to Scotland.
Gulland said: “There’s a real economic opportunity for us to manage those materials back into our supply chain, so recycle back into plastic bottles, paper back into paper, that’s where the real opportunities are in terms of jobs, in terms of economic improvement.
“The regulations have come about, yes, to increase recycling a bit more, get businesses more engaged, focused on food waste, not just in local authorities, but also in the business sector as well, but ultimately, to define what is a good way of presenting those materials for a market, so we can realise the economic opportunity here in Scotland.
“Rather than just put them in another box and ship them to someone else’s economy, whether that’s the South of England or the Far East, where they will get all the value from those resources, because that’s what they are now, they’re not waste, they’re primary and secondary resources that can be used.
“The industry is going down that route, they don’t want to see the valuable resources they are putting into the supply chains fall out at the end, that’s the whole idea of a closed loop.
They’re going to start moving towards, how are they going to get that stuff back; it’s in nobody’s interest to see stuff falling out of the system, whether it’s to landfill or incineration.
“That is going to change, over the next 18 years you’re going to see a completely different dynamic in how resources flow through society, not just here in Scotland, but in the world.” Gulland even believes the minimum target of 70 per cent could be met five years early, but suspects even more will have changed.
“I think by 2025 we will not be obsessed by recycling rates,” he says. “We will be much closer to what we’re calling a circular economy, where you’ll see materials go back round whether that be driven by costs, price and demand for recycled contents.
“There are already countries in the world, or certainly parts of the world, that are in excess of 70 per cent recycling. But certainly for Scotland, the fact that we’re not just trying to take material out of one box, put it in another box and send it somewhere else, we’re actually looking to do something with these materials here in Scotland in our economy. That’s certainly an ambitious part of what we’re about.” And he has drawn similarities with that other great driver of Scotland’s economy, oil and gas.
He said: “As these resources get more and more valuable, people are going to think about mining the waste differently, taking out more of the valuable materials.
“That’s the argument about oil exploration.
We’ve got the oil out of all the easy places but even though the value of oil is increasing, as the value of oil goes up – the price of a barrel of oil goes up and it becomes more attractive to go into uncharted territory where we know there’s oil.
“Ultimately we’re mining the waste for valuable material, there’s more and more value and as there is more and more pressure on primary resources, people are going to start mining that waste even more.”