Scotland is facing a 17-fold expansion in waste incineration that could blight communities, threaten health and wreck the Scottish Government's recycling targets, a Sunday Herald investigation reveals.

We have uncovered plans for another 15 high-temperature waste plants around the country, which will treat nearly three million tonnes of waste a year. This compares to the three existing incinerators that burn 166,000 tonnes a year.

Almost everywhere they have been proposed, the plants have run into fierce opposition from local communities fearful of toxic emissions, health risks and environmental pollution. They have held angry meetings, marched in protests and gone to court.

Environmentalists point out the proposed plants are so huge they will swamp Scottish ministers’ much-vaunted plans for “zero waste”. They argue the incinerators will create such a large demand for waste that they will risk reversing the major gains that have been made in recycling in recent years.

“The scale of energy from waste proposals is shocking and risks undermining the Scottish Government’s zero-waste vision,” said Dr Dan Barlow, head of policy with WWF Scotland.

“Burning anything like this volume of household rubbish would render the target to recycle 70% of waste a pipe dream. It is at odds with Government policy that energy from waste would only be used for materials that can’t be recycled or reused.”

The prospect of local authorities locking themselves into contracts to burn this amount of waste was “alarming”, Barlow argued. “The Government needs to intervene if it is not to see its vision of a zero-waste Scotland go up in smoke.”

Around two million tonnes of municipal waste collected by councils is likely to be treated annually in the new plants, with the rest being commercial waste from shops and businesses. This would use up most of the three million tonnes of household waste currently collected every year.

By far the most ambitious plan is for a high-temperature gasification plant near Newton Mearns, where a Scottish company wants to treat a million tonnes a year of commercial and municipal waste. However, this has sparked some of the angriest protests.

There are also large plants proposed for elsewhere in Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, near Edinburgh, East Lothian, Perth, Stirling, Invergordon and Peterhead.

Multinational companies, councils and local businessmen are behind the proposals, which are set to change the face of waste disposal in Scotland (see panel, above right)

Glasgow MSP Patrick Harvie, of the Green Party, described the incinerator boom as “a dangerous distraction” from creating a truly zero-waste Scotland.

“Incineration is part of the same old mindset of dump and run, it is ‘landfill in the sky’ for local authorities who are running out of space but are not acting to tackle the root causes of this problem,” he said.

“Greens stand with campaigners in Newton Mearns, in Invergordon and in many other communities across Scotland who are simply concerned about the health of their families and the impact on their local environments.”

One of those concerned is Ann Coleman, from the North Airdrie Joint Communities Group, which has been campaigning against the £300 million Drumshangie incinerator planned for Greengairs, Lanarkshire. She fears for the health of thousands of people.

“In 2003, a Government-commissioned report concluded living in the central belt could shorten life expectancy by up to 10 years because of pollution from particulates and any increase could prove to be fatal for even more people,” she said.

“Particulates have no safe level and can be so small as to defy monitoring by current equipment.The Government has a responsibility for our health and our environment, yet it continues to refuse to take action to control the proliferation of mass burn technology that will add to the risk.”

There was a debate about incineration policy in the Scottish Parliament last week, although it did not get much attention outside the chamber. Campaigners were pleased the issues were at least being discussed, but have been left infuriated by the way the Parliament’s petitions committee treated them.

According to Michael Gallagher, from the group Green Alternatives to Incineration in Scotland (GAINS), its members spent months preparing a petition calling for an immediate ban on the construction of new waste incinerators and the closure of existing plants within five years.

When campaigners first presented their petition in January, MSPs expressed sympathy, and took issues up with local authorities. But then came the election in May, and all but two members of the petitions committee changed.

When the new committee looked at the petition in June, its members rejected it as “incompetent” in less than three minutes. The campaigners’ demands were “unrealistic and unachievable”, they said.

The process was deeply disillusioning, Gallagher said. “We now realise the public petitions system is just a con, a way of duping the public into thinking they have a say in public policy.”

Not everyone, of course, is so critical. Professor Jim Baird, a waste expert at Glasgow Caledonian University, pointed out some of the plants being proposed would end up not being built.

He said the Scottish Government was trying hard to boost recycling, and was likely to regulate to prevent the incineration of waste that had not been subject to recycling. “There are sufficient brakes in place to prevent councils from walking away from recycling targets and just burning their wastes,” he argued.

“My own preference is for smaller, more local, plants that can supply communities with electricity and heat. Given the tight emission standards we have in place and the controls on hazardous wastes, the concerns over toxic emissions are unfounded.”

Stephen Freeland, from the waste industry’s Scottish Environmental Services Association, supported a major increase in recycling. But he argued that energy-from-waste (EfW) plants had a key role to play in keeping non-recyclable waste out of landfill.

“More use of EfW need not threaten the achievement of Scotland’s recycling targets. Experience from European countries shows high levels of energy recovery from waste is entirely compatible with further increases in recycling,” he said.

“EfW plants are modern installations tightly regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).”

The Scottish Government insisted its forthcoming zero waste regulations would not allow for large-scale incineration in Scotland, and this would be enforced by Sepa.

“It is the role of the planning authority for their area to determine the suitability of planning applications,” said a Government spokesman.

He pointed out Sepa viewed an incinerator with a capacity of more than 300,000 tonnes as large scale.

“The Scottish Government does not support large-scale incineration,” he added. “Our regulations will limit what goes to incineration.”

But this was little comfort for Stan Blackley, chief executive of Friends Of The Earth Scotland.

“Incinerators require a constant source and high level of waste as fuel to keep the fires burning, and to meet this demand local authorities will often abandon recycling and waste-reduction plans altogether,” he said.

“They can also emit toxic gases, nitrogen oxide, heavy metals and fine particulates, even after the filtering and scrubbing of the flue gases.

“Many of these are pernicious contaminants that pass from the atmosphere into humans and are known to cause cancers and infertility. Who wants that on their doorstep?”