Environmental groups have formally requested Scotland’s environmental watchdog to investigate the Scottish Government’s repeated refusal to use its powers to curb incineration.

The Scottish Government created a moratorium on new waste incinerators in 2022, but it is failing to stop incineration capacity from increasing.

Loopholes in the moratorium mean that developers have continued to push ahead with plans to build incinerators and Scotland’s largest existing incinerator has been permitted by SEPA to increase the amount of waste it can burn. Scotland’s incineration capacity has increased by 215,000 tonnes (17%) since the moratorium was introduced.

Incineration of waste is expensive, emits harmful pollution, contributes to climate change, and prevents effective reuse and recycling.

The Scottish Government’s 2022 independent review on incineration found that, if plants are allowed to develop as planned, Scotland will have more incineration capacity than waste to burn by 2027.

Ministers have repeatedly refused to use their legal powers to temporarily pause the issuing of incinerator permits whilst measures to close loopholes in the moratorium are put in place.

Environmental groups have yesterday (18 June) submitted a joint request for Scotland’s independent environmental watchdog, Environmental Standards Scotland, to urgently investigate the Scottish Government’s lack of action before it is too late.

Kim Pratt, Circular Economy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland said:

“The Scottish Government is turning a blind eye whilst Scotland’s waste burns, causing harmful pollution and blocking effective management of our resources. It has the power to halt the increase in incineration today but it has repeatedly refused to act, despite the clear evidence of loopholes in its incinerator ban.

“This is a failure of the Scottish Government to protect the people of Scotland from the harmful pollution and climate impacts of incinerators. This government is putting the profits of big businesses before the welfare of its citizens.

“Incinerators built now will prevent Scotland from meeting environmental commitments for decades to come so the Scottish Government must immediately stop incinerator permits being issued until it has set a cap on incineration as it promised to do.”

Ben Christman, In-house Solicitor at Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland said:

“The Scottish Government’s ‘incineration moratorium’ has more holes than Swiss cheese. Despite telling the public they wanted to reduce Scotland’s incineration capacity, ministers’ refusal to use their powers over the past two years means that capacity has got even bigger.

“The Scottish Government’s unwillingness to stand up to these waste companies is bad news for climate change and people living near incinerators. We’ve asked Environmental Standards Scotland to investigate and force the Scottish Government to patch up their leaky moratorium.”

Shlomo Dowen, National Coordinator, the UK Without Incineration Network said:

“Scotland is continuing to drift in the wrong direction. For the sake of the climate, air quality, and the circular economy, the Scottish Government should be publishing an incineration exit strategy, not allowing yet more damaging incineration capacity to go ahead.”

Rebecca Glen from Irvine Without Incinerators said:

“We know that if every incinerator that is currently in development goes ahead, Scotland will be overcapacity by 2027. We believe that Irvine is the wrong place for such a project, due to the excessively high rates of deaths and hospitalisations due to respiratory disease in North Ayrshire.

“It shouldn’t be left to local activists to challenge the construction and operation of these incinerators without any support – the Scottish Government should respect not only the letter, but the spirit of their moratorium on incineration and intervene before they completely lose the trust of people who recognise the need to move away from incineration and towards a circular economy model. Studies show a direct correlation between rates of incineration rising and rates of recycling declining and this is the opposite direction of where we should be headed.”

* Scotland’s incineration overcapacity problem

The independent review on the role of incineration in the waste hierarchy, conducted for the Scottish Government in 2022, found “a risk of long-term overcapacity beginning from 2026 or 2027, if all or most of the incineration capacity in the pipeline is built” and that “given the risks of overcapacity, the Scottish Government should limit the amount of national capacity that is developed”.

The review found that, in 2022, incineration capacity in Scotland added up to just over 1 million tonnes. By 2027, the capacity is expected to triple to 3 million tonnes, as the next generation of Scottish incinerators fires up. However, this does not match the total amount of waste available to burn. In 2022, Scotland produced 2.3 million tonnes of waste, which is expected to fall below 2 million tonnes before 2030. If plans remain unchanged, Scotland will have 1 million tonnes worth of unnecessary incineration capacity every year for decades to come.

Overcapacity would mean councils paying incinerator operators to do nothing. Recycling rates would suffer as useful resources were burnt – in 2023, a government funded study found that 52% of household waste thrown away could have been recycled. People across Scotland would be exposed to harmful pollution. There is even the possibility that waste from England could be sent to Scotland to be burned.

Developers argued that additional incineration capacity is required, in the short term, to meet the Scottish Government’s ban on biodegradable waste to landfill by 2025. However, any incinerator starting construction now will not be built in time to contribute to this policy. Such incinerators will, however, add to the overcapacity problem for decades to come.

The review made two recommendations to prevent overcapacity. No further planning permission should be granted for new incinerators and the Scottish Government should develop an ‘indicative cap’ that reduces incinerator and other residual waste treatment capacity over time.

* The incineration moratorium and associated policies

The Scottish Government accepted the recommendations of the review in full. It immediately created a moratorium to stop new incinerators entering the planning system. However, a loophole meant that plants already in the planning system were not included. No indicative cap has been created as promised. Environmental groups warned that this meant there was still a risk of incineration overcapacity by 2027.

In January 2024, the Scottish Government consulted on a plan to improve residual waste management, including incineration. This plan will not be developed until 2025/26. This will be too late to prevent overcapacity as developers have continued to progress and invest in their plans across Scotland. For example, the NESS incinerator in Aberdeen, which was at the construction phase when the review was published, is now fully operational and construction has begun on the Oldhall and Glenfarg incinerators.

* Incineration capacity is still rising

When the Scottish Government introduced the mortarium on incineration, it stated that this was done to ‘limit capacity’. Only two years on from this commitment, the policy has failed to stop incineration capacity rising.

The loophole which allows plants already in the planning system to be developed has led to an increase in incineration capacity by 215,000 tonnes (17%). Before 2018, Scotland had just two incinerators. By 2028, 10 years later, Scotland could have a total of 17 incinerators, if all plants in the planning system are allowed to be developed.

Another loophole in the moratorium is that existing plants are not covered. Scotland’s largest incinerator, Viridor’s Dunbar Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) was awarded a permit increase of 20% from SEPA in July 2023, a year after the moratorium was introduced.

These loopholes mean that a moratorium of new incinerators is not enough to prevent incineration overcapacity. The Scottish Government must act to reduce capacity in the planning system and existing plants as well.

* The Scottish Government has the power to close these loopholes

Regulation 60 of the Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC) regulations 2012 give Scottish Ministers the power to direct SEPA to refuse, temporarily or permanently, incineration permits. Incinerators cannot operate in Scotland without such permits.

In September 2023 and April 2024, community and environmental groups wrote to the Scottish Government to direct SEPA to pause permit approvals, until the Government’s ‘indicative cap’ plan to reduce incineration capacity was in place.

The Scottish Government did not directly respond to this request in its replies. However, enquiries through the Scottish Parliament showed that the Scottish Government acknowledged that it had such powers but refused to use them except in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

The PPC regulation powers do not require ‘exceptional circumstances’. However, environmental groups consider that the current situation, where only urgent action can prevent decades of incineration overcapacity, is exceptional.

* Environmental watchdog must investigate Scottish Government lack of action

Urgent action must be taken to prevent the predictions of overcapacity in the review becoming a reality. This was set out in the incineration review, accepted by the Scottish Government and has still not been acted on, despite the Government’s clear powers to do so.

Environmental groups are calling on Scotland’s environmental watchdog, Environmental Standards Scotland, to investigate the Scottish Government’s lack of action before it is too late.