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Rubbish options for council as an Energy from Waste plant could cost £402 million

By Scott Maclennan

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Landfill waste
Landfill waste

Highland Council’s options for a long-term waste strategy are beginning to look quite rubbish after a feasibility study found that they either cost the same as now or are more expensive.

There are two principal options open to Highland Council, either: send the residual non recyclable waste to an energy from waste plant (EfW) outside the Highlands or build and operate its own plant.

An EfW, possibly built on the Longman landfill site, would cost, over 25 years, anywhere from £320 million to £402 million while shipping it outside the region is valued at £268 million.

For the plant, that equates to between £12.8 million to £16.8 million while moving waste beyond the region it would be £10.7 million a year and that is not much better than the current figure for waste disposal of about £11 million annually.

The communities and place committee was asked to consider the findings of the report into long-term waste solutions, which has been a huge ongoing expense for the council over the years.

Each of the options has pros and cons. Shipping it out to merchants to be burned elsewhere means risks merchant and haulage rates and fees could rise over time – particularly concerning environmental issues.

There is a risk too that “if energy from waste facilities are operating in combined heat and power mode then the environmental performance is more likely to be poorer” outside the region than within it.

The mere fact of moving the residual waste collected by the council to an EfW processor in the central belt requires a projected 2700 journeys a year by articulated lorries – not exactly a green option in itself – primarily using the A9.

Finally, this option loses the potential to use the EfW investment as a “catalyst for supporting other developments.”

A Highland energy from waste plant likewise has pros and cons. In the plus column, there is long-term, direct job creation, wider socio-economic benefits, and has a potentially lighter carbon footprint.

The Longman site is zoned for waste management including for a potential EfW plant within local development plan and it avoids transporting waste out of the area but there could be greater cost burdens due to legislative changes.

On the minus side, there is funding – the capital programme would be heavily impacted not just through the design, build, operating and financing option but also the investment required for delivering heat and power outputs.

There could also be a potentially a lengthy planning process with an uncertain outcome that is similarly matched with an as yet uncertain Scottish Government position over EfW plants.

The report states that if members favoured a locally based EfW option a realistic operational date could be 2032 and would still require a number of environmental, planning and political approvals.

The chairman of the communities and place committee, Councillor Graham MacKenzie, said: “There is an evolving, ever-changing operating environment for waste management, the pace of change accelerating in recent years, reflecting the climate changing requirements of Scottish and UK governments.

“Underpinning much of the change in waste management operations within Scotland is the impending ban on landfilling biodegradable municipal waste from 31 December 2025.

“Highland Council has a medium-term solution in place through its existing contract. This ensures that the biodegradable municipal waste – residual waste – collected by Highland Council will not go to landfill, but instead will be processed at a licensed energy-from-waste facility.

“Further work will be undertaken over the coming months to prepare a perspective for the end of the first quarter of 2024/25 as to whether there are reasonable grounds to recommend progressing, or halting, the assessment of an Inverness-located energy-from-waste facility towards preparing for a planning application.”

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