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The climate change impact of burning municipal waste in Scotland

This report describes the climate change impacts of burning residual municipal waste in Scotland. It aims to inform and support evidence-based decisions to minimise the climate change impacts of managing residual waste.

October 2020

This study quantifies the climate change impacts of burning residual municipal waste in Energy from Waste (EfW) plants in Scotland in 2018. It measures climate change impacts in two ways: carbon intensity and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Carbon intensity is a standard approach for comparing the climate change impacts of different energy generation technologies. In this study, the carbon intensity of EfW plants are compared to the UK national grid average. The results show that the carbon intensity of EfW plants is twice as high as the grid average. EfW carbon intensities would remain above the grid average even the plants were converted to Combined Heat and Power systems, demonstrating that EfW can no longer be considered a low carbon technology in the UK.

The study also considered greenhouse gas emissions using a Life Cycle Assessment approach. The carbon impacts of sending one tonne of residual municipal waste to either EfW or landfill were compared. Average EfW impacts were 15% lower than landfill in 2018. However, changes in waste composition mean that EfW impacts are expected to rise. Small changes in composition could push EfW impacts above landfill, leading to unnecessary climate change emissions.

The report shows how Scotland could have reduced the carbon impacts of residual waste in 2018. Zero Waste Scotland is and has always been committed to supporting the country to meet its 2025 waste targets, and this report does not recommend maintaining residual waste at 2018 levels. Zero Waste Scotland has always been clear that we should reduce waste as much as possible, recycle as much as possible of what remains, and only then, treat the remaining residual waste using the lowest carbon options available.

The report has been reviewed by members of the Scottish Waste Data Strategy Board, and includes discussion about where improvements in publicly available data could support accurate and ongoing monitoring of the carbon impacts of burning waste in Scotland. 

This study provides a strong evidence base to ensure future long-term infrastructure and policy decisions are adapted to take advantage of significant opportunities to reduce the climate change impacts of waste. 

Download 'The climate change impacts of burning municipal waste in Scotland' Report.

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