By John Crawford

THE Herald's article last week on the decline of recycling rates and landfill tonnages – figures from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) revealed that just 42 per cent of rubbish was sent for recycling in 2020 – requires clarification, especially the role that Covid has supposedly played.

Every year, Sepa reports the quantities of waste deposited at licensed landfills in Scotland. But there are also unlicensed landfills operating (why Sepa hasn’t closed these sites down and prosecuted the operators is another issue) but bizarrely, the Scottish Government collects Landfill Tax based on the (estimated) tonnages deposited in these sites. But it’s not clear if Sepa’s statistics include these tonnages, so the recently announced "reduction" could be incorrect.

The overall decline in Scottish household waste recycling rates can be traced directly back to the Scottish Government decision in 2008 to remove the ring-fence from funding (the Strategic Waste Fund) that was originally introduced in 2000. This fund was originally administered by a staff of four civil servants and distributed to Scottish councils who’d used an operational/financial model developed at the Caledonian Environment Centre in Glasgow Caledonian University. This model played an integral role in boosting recycling performances at the time so that by 2007, we led the rest of the UK. After the ring-fence was removed, councils could (and did) use the money for other, non-waste services. Since then, recycling performances have stalled.

The decline in composting performances coincides with the decision to allow councils to charge householders extra for collecting separated garden waste (the densest of all household waste streams and easiest to recycle). Many people now cram as much of it as possible into their (or their neighbours’) residual waste bins to avoid paying the extra charge.

The article is also silent on the fact that a lot of the food waste collected can’t be composted because there’s so much cardboard and plastic packaging among it. Oddly, this material boosts the tonnages claimed by those councils as justification for operating a separate food waste collection service.

And while it’s doubtful if a workable deposit return scheme can ever be introduced in Scotland, most waste managers agree it would cause a significant reduction in the tonnages of glass, plastic bottles and cans currently being collected at the kerbside.

More than a decade ago, the Scottish Government announced that a new organisation, Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) was being set up "to lead and coordinate on waste minimisation, recycling and reducing the amount of waste we landfill". This led to the early demise of the Caledonian Environment Centre.

ZWS describes itself as a "non-government organisation" but is actually funded by the Scottish Government (and by ERDC at one time). It’s also a charity, so it can access donations from the residual 8p plastic carrier charge. As well as employing consultants, it employs more than 180 staff, who enjoy the perk of private medical insurance.

In the light of the foregoing, there’s an argument that Covid has had little impact on waste recycling and shouldn’t we be asking "is ZWS delivering value for money?"

The author spent several decades in the Scottish Waste Management Industry