Scottish EfW review calls for end to plastic incineration

A Scottish independent review (Decarbonisation of Residual Waste Infrastructure in Scotland) has recommended a ban on plastic incineration to help decarbonise the treatment of residual waste and reach climate targets.

Energy from Waste Incinerator Plastic items still enter the residual waste stream due to being placed in the wrong bin or because the items are difficult to recycle. Fossil carbon in residual waste is largely contained in plastics such as that from packaging, toys, building products and clothing.

The report – conducted by Dr Colin Church – is a follow-up to his May 2022 independent review (Stop, Sort, Burn, Bury?) on the role of incineration in Scotland. It recommended placing a cap on future capacity and led to Ministers confirming restrictions on the development of further incinerators. The policy makes clear that the Scottish Government does not support the development of additional incineration capacity, with a few exceptions.

Due to a limited timeframe, the 2022 report was unable to consider the issues around the decarbonisation of residual waste management infrastructure in great depth. The 2023 review addresses these issues by evaluating the opportunities to decarbonise residual waste treatment infrastructure.

The scope of the review is:

  • Residual waste infrastructure greenhouse gas emissions (primarily carbon dioxide from incinerators and methane from landfill);
  • The treatment of household (HH), and commercial and industrial (C&I) waste, with a focus on waste incineration infrastructure (including that in construction and likely to be developed);
  • Both technology changes, as well as systematic changes to decarbonise infrastructure.

EfW recommendations 

Dr Church recommends that by 2025 the Scottish Government and Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) should put in place ‘robust arrangements’ to stop plastic incineration from the beginning of 2030, except where required for hazardous waste disposal.

Recent estimates suggest that the UK exports around 60 per cent of its packaging waste. The review notes that the practice is ‘fraught with problems’ and ‘increasingly seen as unsuitable’. It is also not consistent with Scotland’s desire to be self-sufficient in its waste management. Dr Church states that alongside the incineration ban, Scotland must ensure there is no increase (and ideally a significant decrease) in its export of plastic waste.

Other recommendations include further policies to reduce plastic production; the implementation of source segregation of all plastics and advanced sorting to remove plastics from residual waste treatment; and finding uses for the heat produced from incinerations in, for example, homes and businesses.

Advanced sorting is said to have the potential for an immediate and significant impact on direct emissions from incinerators (49-56 per cent reduction depending on the scenario) as well as bringing significant additional benefits in terms of recycling.

Dr Church commented: “Incineration remains a more climate-friendly method of managing residual waste than traditional landfill, and more practical than any other currently available approach.

“However, without further action, this advantage will erode over a relatively short time. That is why my second report sets out a series of recommendations to improve the carbon impact of residual waste treatment, of which the most urgent and potentially most impactful is the cessation this decade of the incineration of plastic.”

Circular Economy Minister Lorna Slater added: “I would like to thank Dr Church for this report, which will make an important contribution to ensuring that the management of residual waste in Scotland aligns with our greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

“Of course, the best way to reduce harmful emissions from our waste is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. That is why we have already banned many of the most problematic single-use plastic products and will soon be presenting a draft Circular Economy Bill to parliament. This will establish the legislative framework to support Scotland’s transition to a zero waste and circular economy.”