It is hard to fault the energy the Scottish Government put behind its “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” campaign when it was launched in 2010. The slogan was everywhere for a while and the councils all came on board enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, with the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear the way councils approached the implementation of the government’s waste policy, was often flawed.

For a start, there was no edict from government imposing any uniformity on how the 37 Scottish councils went about implementing kerbside recycling collections. The lack of uniformity is a source of confusion to many householders.

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Secondly, as Forbes Connor, Managing Director of Changeworks Recycling observes, China’s willingness to take co-mingled waste, which ended in January last year, provided some councils with an easy, low cost solution.

Co-mingled waste, also called mixed dry waste, was collected in mixed stream recycle bins. The idea was that recyclable materials like glass, plastics, paper and cardboard could all be put in one bin. These would then be hand sorted at purpose-built Materials Recycling Facilities (MRFs).

What became clear, however, is that co-mingling waste contaminates and degrades the quality of the streams. Johan Sundblad, Managing Director of SAICA Natur UK Ltd, one of the largest materials recycling companies, says: “It is very hard to use mechanical means to sort co-mingled paper, cans and glass to the required quality levels, so councils are now having to go back 20 years to proper sorting at source. However, households in Scotland do not yet have a great track record in producing clean streams.

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It just takes a small amount of food or other contaminants in a paper stream to render it useless for anything except incineration,” he says. Segregated waste streams required a lot more effort and initial expense from councils as far as the collection effort was concerned.

Once China closed its doors, the writing was on the wall for co-mingled waste.

On the positive side, Sundblad says public and business awareness of the importance of recycling has probably never been higher. “The vast majority of us are now focused on the impact we have on the environment. There is a lot of work still to do, but the level of public awareness is very encouraging,” he says.

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In a recent report, the BBC looked at the recycling rules of five of Scotland’s largest councils, East Renfrewshire, West Lothian, Clackmannanshire, Moray and Inverclyde. Big differences emerged as to what could and could not be recycled at the kerbside depending on which council one was in.

The report highlighted differences such as some councils being willing to accept glass collections at the kerbside, while others required householders to use community glass recycling collection points. A few councils, such as West Lothian accept plastic carrier bags for recycling, others don’t.

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Helensburgh, for instance, had paper, cardboard, cans and plastic all going into the same blue bin. Another example of the gulf between the Scottish Government’s ambitions and the ability of Scottish councils to fulfil those ambitions, can be seen from the way the councils have responded to the government’s proposed 2021 ban on domestic “black bag” refuse going to landfill. The idea behind the ban is to further accelerate the “circular economy” concept and to prevent more than a million tonnes of household rubbish a year from winding up in landfill sites.

However, according to the local authority body, Cosla, the message from Scottish councils is that they are very unlikely to be in a position to comply with the ban by the January 1, 2021 deadline. To do so would mean building a number of waste-to-heat incineration facilities to deal with whatever rubbish remains after households have stepped up their recycling/reuse efforts.

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Many councils are now building or planning to build these facilities, but there will not be sufficient capacity in Scotland by January 2021.

The ban means that no landfill operators in Scotland will be able to accept biodegradable municipal waste, which is to say, waste that can undergo aerobic or anaerobic decomposition. This includes food waste, garden rubbish, paper, cardboard and packaging, and textiles.

Construction and demolition waste is excluded from the ban.

Councils can hardly complain that the government has sprung this deadline on them. The ban was initially proposed as part of the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012, and has been a significant plank in the government’s Zero Waste Plan, which dates back to 2010. That plan foresaw a nationwide recycling rate of 70% by 2025, at which point only 5% of Scotland’s domestic and municipal waste is supposed to go to landfill.

The 2025 target is actually a reaction to the European Union’s Waste Directive, which was published in 2008. This set a target for all participating nations to reduce the amount of domestic waste going to landfill by 70% by 2030.

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The government has been adamant that it will not move the date of the landfill ban despite the misgivings of many councils.

Even when the ban is in force, some black bags will, inevitably, still have to be collected since not all rubbish is recyclable.

According to a report from the local government body, Cosla, councils are saying that up to a million additional tonnes of garbage will have to be trucked out of Scotland every year if the material cannot go to landfill.

Scotland already sends more than 1.6 million tonnes of rubbish down to England and elsewhere every year, according to recent press reports, so this would take the total being trucked out of Scotland to around three million tonnes.

Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland said: “The Scottish Government’s targets on reuse and recycling to combat the climate emergency are vital, and rightly ambitious. “They require a collective effort, and while significant progress has already been made, much more work is needed. It’s important that people across Scotland continue to do the right thing by recycling, despite what can be a confusing array of product labels and collection services,” he says.

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“Local authorities have recognised the need to introduce consistent and comprehensive recycling services across Scotland through the Household Recycling Charter, but swifter action is needed to make it as easy as possible for people to understand what can and can’t be recycled.

“Zero Waste Scotland has played a key role in helping councils to increase their recycling services, reducing the amount of waste going to landfill and helping local authorities prepare for the 2021 ban.

“Our pioneering Carbon Metric system measuring the whole-life carbon impacts of all Scotland’s waste gives us the clearest picture yet of what is driving up the emissions behind the climate emergency, to ensure policy and action is targeted where needed most.”