In context: the circular economy
The Scottish Government announced in September that it was introducing a Circular Economy Bill as part of a package of measures responding to the climate emergency. It aims to tackle Scotland’s throwaway culture and change attitudes towards waste in a bid to make Scotland a “net zero society” (with net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045). A consultation on the bill launched last week and the legislation will be brought before parliament next year
What is it?
The circular economy is an economic model that has the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle at its heart. Its main feature is turning waste from a liability into a resource.
It aims to be much more sustainable than the prevailing linear economic model of take-make-waste, in which resources are extracted (often at a high carbon cost), made into goods, then used for a short while before being discarded and dumped, typically in landfill sites.
The circular economy takes nature as its inspiration. In nature, there is no such thing as waste, the dead leaves on a tree, for instance, provide nutrients and energy for new growth.
In the circular economy, goods are used for as long as possible, then repaired or repurposed and reused. ‘Waste’ products from industrial processes are reused too. When items are no longer functional, they are broken into their constituent parts and remanufactured into new goods, creating a so-called ‘closed loop’. Goods are made using as many biodegradable elements as possible so that ultimately those elements can be returned to the environment without causing pollution.
Renewable forms of energy, high levels of energy efficiency, the avoidance of toxic materials and eco-friendly forms of transport are all central to the design of the circular economy.
An early proponent of the circular economy was the Swiss architect and sustainability advocate, Walter Stahel, who used the term “cradle to cradle” in the 1970s to describe the need to reuse waste to create new goods instead of committing it to the ‘grave’ of the landfill site. His 1976 report, with colleague Genevieve Reday, for the European Commission put forward the circular economy concept. More recently, it has been championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Proponents say that it need not reduce quality of life for consumers – indeed, it can enhance it – and believe it is economic for business.
Is it necessary?
A more sustainable economic model is essential to tackle climate change and the world cannot keep using up new resources without running out eventually. In the 20th century, while the population quadrupled, the use of materials increased eight times.
Can it work?
Some critics have pointed out that the idea of eliminating waste or the use of virgin resources is a mirage: paper can only be recycled so many times, for instance, and the impurities in many used goods cannot be removed entirely. They also point out that recovering waste has to be attractive for businesses, and this will only be the case if the value of recovered materials exceeds the cost of recovery. Proponents believe it still points the way to a more sustainable economy.
What will the new bill involve?
The Scottish Government says that it will “embed an innovative approach to reducing, reusing and recycling materials and help to deal with items that we know cause environmental harm”, but so far, the details are scant, with the only firm commitments being provisions for charges on items such as single-use drinks cups (4,000 tonnes of waste beverage cups are created in Scotland each year), and a new penalty for littering from vehicles. The Scottish Government is also committed to consulting on legislation requiring public bodies to set out how they will meet circular economy obligations in their procurement strategies.
Environmental campaigners will be hoping for evidence of measures that promote radical and systemic change.
Examples of the circular economy in action in Scotland
Aurora Sustainability: Aurora, based in Forres, produces mushrooms by using the waste bioresources of other companies such as sawdust, spent grains from breweries, coffee grounds and waste heat from whisky distilleries
Jaw Brew: this Glasgow-based microbrewery utilises unused morning rolls from Aulds the Bakers, which would otherwise go to waste, to produce the award-winning Hardtack beer
Spruce Carpets: this Glasgow-based enterprise reduces the amount of carpet sent to landfill by recovering end-of-line or damaged stock from manufacturers and refurbishing used carpet tiles that are no longer needed by businesses
Vegware: this Edinburgh-based company is a global leader in the design and manufacture of plant-based compostable catering ware such as cups, plates and cutlery. It has its own composting collection service, called Close the Loop