Scotland's internationally leading role on the circular economy

Written by Jenni Davidson on 23 February 2017 in Feature

Associate feature: Zero Waste Scotland chief executive Iain Gulland talks about Scotland's collaborative work on the circular economy

Cellucomp uses agricultural waste to produce Curran, a nano-fibre enhancer used as a thickener in paints, coatings and concrete

The circular economy may not yet be a topic of conversation in the pub or the supermarket, and it’s likely that the average person in the street might not know what it is if asked, but nevertheless, it is an area that Scotland is internationally recognised as a pioneer in.

The Scottish Government along with partners won the Circular Economy Governments, Cities and Regions award at the Circulars Awards in Davos last month, ahead of other countries including Canada, China, the Netherlands and England.

And while the term may not have entered common usage, behind the scenes a coalition of public sector organisations, including Zero Waste Scotland, are working with industry to look at incorporating more sustainable business models that go beyond just recycling and reducing landfill, with innovative approaches to reuse, repair and remanufacture.


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There are two aspects of Scotland’s approach that Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland, thinks are key to Scotland’s international reputation.

One is the clear progress that’s been made and the other is the collaborative way it’s being managed.

He explains: “The step into the circular economy is linking it to the economic story, and the social story as well, and realising that there’s a real added value from doing something which is further up the waste hierarchy in terms of reuse, repair and remanufacturing of stuff in Scotland.

“So I think people are attracted to the fact that we can demonstrate that journey quite clearly from where we were 10, 15 years ago when we sent everything to landfill…I think people are really attracted to that because we’re not just setting bold statements, we’re actually turning a big idea into implementation.

He continues: “I think the second thing [is] the way it’s been really driven is a collaboration with ourselves, Scottish Enterprise, SEPA, Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

“We’re working with Skills Development Scotland on future skills for the circular economy. We’re working with Education Scotland to identify opportunities for teaching circular economy across the curriculum.

“We’re working with a broad association of both public sector and private sector agencies and businesses.

“We’re working with the city chambers as well, working with local authorities not just on their waste and recycling, but on their economic role as well.

“I’m lucky I get to stand on stages presenting the circular economy to other people, and that is the question people ask, people are really intrigued: ‘How do you manage to get that collaboration?’

“Because I think other countries that are looking at the circular economy see their environmental part of government that’s looking at it in isolation, or the economic people, and some of them are really interested in how we’ve managed to build that collaboration.

“And I think, well, it makes sense, and we did do it on purpose, we did bring all these people in on purpose at the beginning, but you can see that that’s what’s really going to drive this successfully, that a lot of people have ownership of it; it’s not just one person’s responsibility.

“The First Minister mentioned it last year when we launched the manufacturing action plan, John Swinney’s mentioned it in his work, previously you’ve got the enterprise minister, you’ve got the energy minister, all of those people are now a voice for the circular economy and that just shows you that it is that collaboration.

“It’s cross-government, it’s cross-industry, because that’s where the benefits are, across industry, across society.

“It’s not something that we’re all going to realise just by putting stuff in a different box or a bin, it’s what happens behind all of that that really makes the difference.”

Scotland is also leading the game in terms of European funding. The EU is putting together £680m over the next few years towards supporting the circular economy, but Scotland has been the first to access this funding, which has contributed towards the £70m fund that Zero Waste Scotland has to support businesses in moving towards a more circular economic approach.

Gulland says: “We put our proposals together, so it’s great, Europe’s saying ‘Look at Scotland, they’re doing exactly what we think the European money should be spent on, go and see what they’re doing,’ so we’re a real trailblazer in terms of thinking through the opportunities and bringing not just Scottish Government money, but European structural funds to bear on that.”

Things are at an early stage, with work so far concentrating on research and planning. Zero Waste Scotland has carried out a great deal of evidence work on what the circular economy would mean for Scotland, particular in key sectors such as food and drink, manufacturing, oil and gas and construction, and the potential benefits in terms of value for the economy and jobs.

It has worked with the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce on a city scan to look at the movement of resources in the city, which “threw up some interesting projects, some potential new businesses”.

One of these is a collaboration between a bakery and a brewery to turn waste bread rolls into beer. It’s a different approach to that normally taken, where issues are looked at on an industry-by-industry basis, but Scotland’s small size is allowing these cross-sector conversations to take place.

Things are progressing particularly well in the area of organic waste, with the country pioneering in terms of the bioeconomy.

Zero Waste Scotland has produced a national roadmap of where all the organic bi-products are in Scotland, which is “effectively like a sales brochure to the world” of available resources, so, for example, dairy by-products in Dumfries and Galloway could be used elsewhere as a sugar source or protein source for make up or pharmaceuticals.

And there have been success stories already in terms of innovative solutions to put waste products to good use.

Materials science company CelluComp is producing Curran, a nano-fibre enhancer made of agricultural waste from root crops that can be used as a thickener in products such as paints and coatings and concrete.

It has lower energy consumption than other paint thickeners and reduces the environmental impact from food processing residues.

But the circular economy is not just about finding new solutions for by-products. Re-tek repairs and refurbishes functional used IT products and sells them on to new owners, sharing the revenue with the previous owner.

Around 80 per cent of all equipment received is refurbished and re-marketed, with only items that are non-functional or have no market value going to conventional IT recycling partners. Of the recycling output, the average resulting landfill is just one per cent.

And the benefits of the circular economy extend far beyond conventional recycling. Gulland says: “This is all about climate change, so obviously increasing recycling, keeping stuff out of landfill, there’s a climate change benefit from that, but if we become more circular…there are wider climate change impacts across other parts of the economy.

“So in terms of industry, manufacturing, oil and gas, there’s a fivefold increase if we move to a more circular economy rather than if we address the waste problem.

“That’s significant. But actually that’s on territorial emissions, but if you look at consumption emissions from global emissions, there’s another five times the impact on that, because actually we would be remanufacturing, repairing stuff, we wouldn’t be ‘importing’ as much materials, so that would be an impact in terms of the carbon that is used to make those things.

“But also if we’re looking at manufactured goods, it is going to be better for the environment that these things are actually made in Scotland because we’re shifting to a very decarbonised economy here in terms of electricity generation, so there’s a huge win for, not just Scotland but for the planet if Scotland becomes very circular, and that is the aim.”

The Scottish Government launched its circular economy strategy, Making Things Last, a year ago and has promised a circular economy bill later in this parliament, something that’s likely to be a key theme of Zero Waste Scotland’s annual resources conference this year, with Gulland keen to get others involved from varying sectors to feed into the content of the bill.

“I would like to think by September this year not just us, but the people who are involved in the industries, the businesses, should be able to say ‘If we have a bill, what would the bill be able to do for us to make this happen quicker or is there particular challenges still that need to be overcome or rather how can a bill facilitate more take up of the circular economy?’

“So we’ve got to learn and socialise all our experiences over the next few months with a view to really thinking ‘Right, what’s the next milestone or what’s the next stepping stone we need to put in place to make this happen?’ because the benefits are clear for everybody now.

“It’s about getting the balance between the economy and the environment right,” he says.

“You know there’s massive opportunity for addressing climate change, not just here in Scotland, but in a global context, and I think that people are now beginning to realise that, and certainly Europe sees that, sees the link between the economic side and the environment side.”

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