It seems fairly clear that the looming landfill ban to be enforced in Scotland by legislation, enacted in 2012 (The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012) and which comes into force on 1st January 2021 will leave around 1 million tonnes of biodegradable residual waste stranded. In England there is no absolute ban yet, but the Committee on Climate Change has urged government in Westminster to follow Scotland’s lead by 2025 and legislate by implementing a legally binding ban. Governments in Scotland and England have encouraged the reduction of landfilling biodegradable waste and thus the production of environmentally damaging methane by gradually increasing landfill tax in the expectation that private enterprise would step in and build more and better recycling; and energy recovery facilities (ERF’s) for the inevitable material that cannot be recycled. To an extent this has been successful, but not entirely so and various estimates suggest that there will be a shortfall in available recycling and ERF’s of 1M tonnes in Scotland and at least 8M tonnes in England.

In the last few months there has been an increasing media interest in what will happen in Scotland on 1st January 2021 when the ban comes into force. Various suggestions have been made including shipping to Europe, transporting it, by road or ship, to English landfill or derogation on the ban in those areas which are not served by recycling and ERF’s.

Shipping waste to Europe particularly from more remote areas, involves multiple handling, road transport and storage and is increasingly, and rightly, recognised as an irresponsible solution for waste disposal. There is now a public awareness of the dangers of waste export, making headline news with the ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Drowning in Waste’ and other documentaries, and highlighting a fact long known within the industry that not all waste exported is treated responsibly. Responsible waste handling/disposal aside, fossil fuelled shipment of waste overseas is costly both in terms of cash and carbon emissions and is simply unsustainable and environmentally damaging. We must recycle what we can and recover energy with what is left. But, what of the landfill ban and the stranded 1M tonnes in Scotland?

There are a number of options for this waste which excludes shipping it overseas for the above reasons:

  1. Ship the waste to England for landfill – can only be a temporary solution as England is likely soon to implement a legal ban. Furthermore, this will be a costly exercise adding at least £50/tonne to the cost of landfilling in Scotland today. The most striking result however will be the flight of landfill tax out of Scotland and into the English exchequer and this surely would be politically and economically unacceptable.
  2. Lift the ban on landfill – but this would be environmentally unacceptable and probably constitute political suicide on the part of the sitting Scottish Government
  3. Allow a managed derogation of the ban – in certain areas where there is no or insufficient recycling/ERF facilities. Derogated landfilling would be subject to close scrutiny by SEPA and subject to an additional landfill tax designed to accelerate the building of recycling and ERF’s to replace landfill. In other words simply an acceleration and intensification of the drivers currently in place that have been largely, but not wholly successful.

Of the options suggested above, we believe that derogation of the landfill ban is now inevitable in certain areas. It keeps landfill tax in Scotland, avoids costly transport and breaking of the proximity principle and will increase and enhance the financial incentive for private enterprise and councils to build and operate recycling and energy recovery facilities. As soon as such facilities are in place then landfills in the catchment area can be immediately closed and the derogation for them removed.