Resource Use

Scotland witnessed two per cent increase in waste following pandemic, SEPA reveals

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has revealed that Scotland saw a two per cent increase in waste following the COVID-19 pandemic. This week (27 September) the agency published its official statistics detailing the amount of household waste collected across Scottish Local Authorities in 2021, and how much of which was sent to landfill or incineration.

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Increasing waste from the easing of lockdown

With a noticeable increase in the amount of waste generated and amount recycled, the figures reflect the impact of easing lockdown restrictions on household waste, as the country emerged from the pandemic. In particular, an increase in waste wood and construction waste point to the large number of households restarting renovation projects.

The publication reveals that Scotland generated 2.48 million tonnes of household waste in 2021, a 2.3 per cent increase from the previous year. This is equivalent to 0.45 tonnes of waste per person in 2021, with 0.19 tonnes recycled, 0.12 tonnes sent to landfill, and 0.14 tonnes diverted through other means, such as incineration.

Carbon impact of Scottish waste

Accompanying these waste statistics is the Scottish carbon metric, a measure of Scotland’s waste management emissions and the whole-life impact of resources, taken in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

In 2021, Scottish household waste created 5.9 million tonnes CO2e, equalling to be 1.08 tonnes CO2e per person. Due to the increase in generated waste, the metric saw a 0.9 per cent increase in carbon impact from 2020.

SEPA witnessed, however, a 12.8 per cent decrease in carbon impact from statistics taken in 2011 which saw a 4.7 per cent decrease in waste.

Handling of Scottish waste in 2021

There was less reported progress in the amount of waste landfilled, with a 0.6 per cent increase from 2020, despite landfill waste having more than halved since 2011. Regarding total waste, Scotland sent 3.2 million tonnes of waste to landfill in 2021, a 22.4 per cent increase from 2020.

The publication notes the overall increase was largely due to more soils and sorting residues being landfilled from 2020. This is again likely due to the resurgence of construction projects.

At the same time, Scotland witnessed a 0.7 per cent increase in the amount of household waste recycled, repurposing 42.7 per cent of all waste handled. 63.8 per cent of these materials were either recycled or reused, while the remaining 36.2 per cent was composted.

Additionally, SEPA recorded a 0.7 per cent increase in the amount of segregated recyclate waste collected kerbside, with 721,000 tonnes gathered in 2021. This change was more pronounced in rural authorities, the report shares, with a 1.6 per cent increase, compared to urban authorities, which witnessed a 0.1 per cent increase.

Outside of recycling, 758,000 tonnes of waste was managed by other diversions from landfill, 80.7 per cent of which was sent to incinerators. Scotland sent 1.35 million tonnes of its total waste to incinerators in 2021, with sorting residues making up a third due to the resumed construction.

Increasing wood and construction waste

Of the seven categories of materials most recycled in the measured timeframe, wood waste saw the largest increase from 2020, with a 14.7 per cent rise. A close second was construction and soil waste, seeing a nine per cent increase from the previous year.

The increase in these materials comes after 2020 saw a 21.5 per cent decrease each. Again, this is a clear impact from the pandemic, as home improvement projects reduced greatly from pandemic factors, sparking a sharp increase as industries opened up again.

‘The need for a continued focus on recycling’

Gary Walker, Waste and Landfill Tax Manager at SEPA, said: “The latest official statistics reflect the reality of the easing of COVID pandemic restrictions, as household waste recycling centres re-opened. While Scotland has seen a reduction in the amount of waste generated in the last decade, the latest figures are a timely reminder of the need for a continued focus on recycling by us all.

“Recycling is a simple daily step everyone can take to build a more sustainable Scotland. We can all make choices to reduce the amount of waste we generate and keep products and materials in use for as long as possible through re-use and recycling to help Scotland tackle the climate emergency.” 

Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland, added: “It is encouraging to see recycling rates recover slightly from 2020, when they were significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recycling is a fantastic force for good, helping to keep materials in use for longer and evolve a more circular economy for Scotland.

“The latest data makes clear however that, as a society, we need to do more to curb our consumption. Around 80 per cent of Scotland’s carbon footprint comes from the products and materials we make, use, and throw away – often before the end of their useable life. It’s a moral and environmental imperative that we change that.

“We need to transform our throwaway culture to one in which products and materials are valued and made to last if we’re serious about tackling climate change.”