At Scotland’s Heart

This year’s Scottish Resources Conference saw lively debates on Extended Producer Responsibility and a Deposit Return Scheme for Scotland – which is intended to sit at the heart of the country’s circular economy ambitions. Maxine Perella reports for the CIWM Journal.

At this year’s Scottish Resources Conference, Environment & Climate Change Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham made it clear that Scotland will be pressing ahead with plans for introducing a national deposit return scheme (DRS) following a well-received public consultation that attracted over 3,000 responses.  

In her keynote speech, Cunningham emphasised that the priority now was to analyse all of this feedback, with a view to unveiling proposals for how the scheme will work to the Scottish Parliament next year. Whilst she wouldn’t be drawn on giving a more precise timetable for implementation, she said the sooner the better.

Cunningham – “I really want to see the recycling rates increase – Wales is doing a lot better than us, they are definitely the leaders in that respect so I don’t we should be shy of accepting that there’s a model already in the UK that is doing a lot better.”

“I would like us not to spend years shilly-shallying about on this. I don’t want us to still be talking about this in five years’ time,” she told delegates, indicating that more discussion was needed on how a Scottish scheme might interact with the rest of the UK, depending on whether or not England and Wales decide to follow Scotland’s lead.

“The more countries you involve in this, the better for everybody. So if we can come to agreement across the UK, great – but it has to be the right solution for Scotland,” she emphasised. 

For Scotland, such a scheme would sit very much at the heart of the nation’s circular economy ambitions by placing a value on items that previously have been seen as worthless.  

“One of the things that excites me about a DRS is its potential to build reprocessing opportunities in Scotland,” Cunningham told delegates.

She also used her speech to announce an extra £500,000 funding for solutions aimed at tackling marine plastic pollution, doubling the previous commitment of £500,000. 

“There’s Money To Be Made”

CIWM Journal caught up with the Cabinet Secretary afterwards to ask whether the Scottish Government is considering a more punitive approach when it comes to plastics and litter.

“We could always look at that,” she replied. “Obviously there is an enormous benefit to be had from a reduction in litter, but there are lots of things we are trying to do around that which includes the Household Recycling Charter.”

She added: “I guess the point I’m trying to make is, for business there’s money to be made in this. If there’s an opportunity for you to create a business out of this, what is that government needs to do to get you to do that?”

As for future priorities, Cunningham told the CIWM Journal she was keen to address national recycling performance levels. 

“I really want to see the recycling rates increase – Wales is doing a lot better than us, they are definitely the leaders in that respect so I don’t we should be shy of accepting that there’s a model already in the UK that is doing a lot better. 

“From my perspective, for Scotland, we have no reason not to be as ambitious as we possibly can be. The door is now open to do things … to effect change in a way that it might not of been ten years ago. It would be remiss of any government not to take that opportunity and run with it.”

Nuts & Bolts

Much of the conference debate that followed Cunningham’s speech centred on the nuts and bolts of how a DRS might work north of the border. Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) has been working closely with the Scottish Government on a DRS, and ZWS’s chief executive Iain Gulland was asked why Scotland felt the need to design a scheme from scratch given there were already several successful international examples out there.

Gulland said while the modelling work includes elements of other schemes, it was important to incorporate Scotland’s unique cultural, political and demographic aspects in order to make it work from day one. 

“Ultimately people are interested in how accessible it will be, where the collection points will be,” he said, adding that it will be a challenge to get that right. “It will only be a success if the public of Scotland understand it and engage with it.”

The key aims of a Scottish DRS are to improve recycling quality and quantity, encourage wider behaviour change around materials, and deliver societal and economical benefits. How a DRS will impact on kerbside collection tonnages is yet to be seen, but it remains an ongoing concern particularly among local government representatives. 

Bruce Reekie, waste services manager at Perth & Kinross Council, highlighted the fact that councils have invested in improving recycling services for decades. “Any proposal for a Scottish DRS has to be seen in the context of those extensive kerbside services we have at the moment,” he said.

Reekie also pointed out that a DRS wouldn’t necessarily save on street cleaning costs, due to the fact that litter comprises many other items like cigarette butts, gum and food packaging besides plastic bottles and cans. “Those services will still be undertaken,” he told delegates.

Peter Mitchell, senior economist at Valpak, felt that the opportunity to consider an on-the-go recycling DRS to complement existing kerbside services had been overlooked in Scotland. “Putting a framework around on-the-go is a real challenge,” acknowledged Callum Blackburn, head of policy, research & evaluation at ZWS, but questioned whether such an approach would address the level of ambition Scotland is trying to achieve. 

Extended Producer Responsibility

Some speakers felt a DRS shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, and that it needed to be supported by other policy mechanisms such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and possible taxes. “Sometimes we get hung up on DRS as a solution to all our ills,” said Dr Adam Read, external affairs director at Suez Recycling & Recovery UK. “If EPR is right, then DRS is only a subset of this.”

Another impending policy intervention is Scotland’s biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) ban which comes into effect in January 2021. Janet McVea from the Scottish Government said that the forthcoming ban was already raising questions over future residual waste capacity. “We know that a number of local authorities have yet to find a partial or full solution,” she told delegates.

Janet McVea from the Scottish Government said that the forthcoming ban was already raising questions over future residual waste capacity…

Stephen Cooper, head of direct services at Moray Council, said those councils who will be facing shortfalls in residual capacity had “just got over two years” to make alternative arrangements. He added that the refuse-derived fuel (RDF) export market was constrained, and Brexit wasn’t helping the situation. “We need a collective approach with local authorities to get the best procurement route at the cheapest cost,” he told delegates.

Despite this, Scotland remains committed to the ban as part of its transition to a more circular economy. McVea said that delaying the timeframe beyond 2021 was not an option as that would effectively change the goalposts for investors. She added that in order to minimise the country’s residual waste arisings, further significant progress against circular economy targets – such as reducing food waste by a third by 2025 – was critical. 

Gary Walker, waste & landfill tax manager at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), said once the ban came into effect, it would be “enforced at the landfill gate”. He added that SEPA’s forthcoming Landfill Sector Plan would act as the principle mechanism for enforcement, but acknowledged that more guidance needed to be issued on material sampling and testing regimes to help landfill operators comply with the ban. 


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