Lockdown recycling fears as more rubbish may be getting sent to landfill

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The word on the street – or at least at the kerb where the bins are collected – is that food waste is down.

Householders, it seems, have taken to home cooking, reheating leftovers and careful shopping during the pandemic.

So we are throwing away less of what we could have been eating – and also finding time to separate our different kinds of rubbish for recycling.

It is far too early for Scotland’s annual rubbish stats for 2020 – those for 2019 were only published in the autumn – but there is anecdotal evidence of behavioural shifts thanks to Covid lockdowns.

This could be big. For years policy-makers focused on how much of our trash we recycled, now it is thinking far more about targeting the carbon in the waste.

“Food makes up only about five percent of waste by volume but it is about 25% by carbon,” explained Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland. “We have to think of all the energy that goes in to growing the food, processing the food, supplying the food.

That means – since long before coronavirus appeared – anyone serious about tackling climate change was trying to minimise how much of our food waste we create, and how much of that we put in to landfill.

The Scottish Government had grand plans to ban the burying of all biodegradable organic material by this year.

That is not now happening – the deadline has been shifted to 2025. Why? Because we are still generating some 2 million tonnes of “black bag” rubbish – residual household waste and too much of this is littered with food.

Moreover, the country’s waste operators bluntly told the government they would have to ship such trash to England or further afield if they couldn’t bulldoze it in to landfill.

The industry’s alternative was energy-from-waste (EFW) plants – incinerators, as critics call them. Burning is better than burying, they say. But councils were not able to get their acts together to put in place a procurement process for EFW outside big cities. So work stalled, and the deadline slipped.

Now, amid a pandemic, the stopwatch has been reset.

For Gullard, the race is all about making less waste, especially residual waste, the mixed trash with food in it. He wants fewer black bags. And he is wondering if there is a lesson to be had in how people have dealt with Covid.

Asked about lockdown recycling statistics, he said: “We don’t have the numbers yet and it will be a wee while before they work though.

“However, quite a few local authorities have said that the recycling rates or higher or that the amount of material they are collecting is higher.

“That is because more of us are at home. So we have time to do recycling – believe or it or not.

“That is tempered by the fact a lot of businesses are not recycling because they are not open.

“This year we might see an increase for households but a decrease for businesses.

“But habits have changed. Cardboard will go up, thanks to all those home deliveries.

“We have sheds full of cardboard boxes and council services are having to adapt to that as more cardboard comes through the system.

“We have heard reports that food waste has gone down. Because in lockdown people were much more aware of making and baking and cooking up leftovers. Also our shopping habits changed, we are doing one shop a week.”

Gullard and others acknowledge that there may be some extra waste from the first lockdown, when some services were cut back. However councils have now adapted and – despite social distancing and other restrictions – are managing to collect all those different bins.

But what next?

Covid is not for ever. Gullard and his colleagues are trying to work out whether people will go back to the old ways – grabbing a pre-packaged lunch on the go in the office. Or whether frugal Covid habits will stay.

“Will there be a high percentage of people working from home when we come out of this?’ he asked.

“How many people will not go back to the office?

Will that reduce waste? Single use packaging? Will there be a rebound? Will we go on a binge of overindulgence and rush in to shops and buy things? That is not what we want to see in terms of climate change.”

But, for Gullard, the pandemic also brings another lesson.

“Behaviour change can be difficult,” he said. “Covid has shown us we can change our behaviours, that we can do things differently.”

Zero Waste Scotland is helping to fund research by Leeds University in to how householders have been dealing with food waste during the pandemic.

The academics said self-reported waste was down about a third during the first lockdown but edged back up again.

Gulbanu Kaptan, who is leading the research, last month said: “We are particularly interested in the determinants of behaviour: for instance, what impact do our emotions have on wasting food, and what are the personal goals and values around how we buy and eat food?”

In reducing waste and increasing recycling, the human factor is still the most important.

The Scottish Government late last year published its annual report card on its drive to reach net zero. It gave itself a pat on the back, saying carbon emissions from the waste and resources sector had dropped 70% from 1998.

But its targets are tough. It wants to halve emissions from roughly 1.9 megatonnes now to 0.8 megatonnes in 2030 – with a midway aim of 1.2 megatonnes by 2025.

Many, including Gullard, think Scotland focuses too much on bins and needs to think outside those boxes.

We should be thinking with what we do with the stuff we reclaim from the trash system, he said. Right now much is sent abroad – something that is getting hard to do, and harder justify.

The Government believes the circular economy would “also stimulate job creation: research has shown that 10,000 tonnes of waste can create one job in incineration, six jobs in landfill, 36 jobs in recycling or up to 296 jobs in repair and reuse”.

Gullard stresses this is not just about metal, plastic and wood. It is, again, about the key food waste. There will always be slops and in urban and suburban areas these are used as fuel for biogas plants. Things are now so well advanced on the islands and remote mainland communities. There Gullard suggests “novel” technologies, such as black soldier fly farms where larvae eat food waste and then are themselves used for fish feed.

He still believes householders can do more, that black bag waste can be reduced. “We reckon two-thirds of what people throw out in their residual bins could easily be recycled.

“I think we will see much bigger jumps going forward.”

Can those jumps be big enough for the biodegradable landfill ban in 2025?

Stephen Freeland speaks for the Environmental Services Association, the waste industry umbrella group.

He too thinks the pandemic has had an impact. But not a good one. “Things have gone very very quiet on planning for 2025. That is not a criticism because everybody is busy with Covid. They seemed to have dropped the ball a bit.”

Freeland thinks policy-makers are repeating the mistakes they made before the precious 2021 deadline.

“The key flaw the first time around was we never addressed the public procurement process which allowed us to build the facilities we needed to get waste out of landfill,” he said. “I get we need to be increasing recycling but at the end of the day there is still an element of residual waste.”

Councils away from the big cities need to pull together to provide commercial incinerator operators with a guaranteed supply, Freeland said. That has not happened.

“We are talking about £100-£200m worth of plant and equipment and an average of between give and seven years from the point of concept to getting the things up and running,” he said.

“We would need to fairly advanced at the moment to be in any realistic chance of getting to 2025.”

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