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Scotland's circular economy: What goes around comes around

The Circular Economy Bill was published in June 2023 | Alamy

Scotland's circular economy: What goes around comes around

The average power drill is used for 20 minutes in its lifetime. And there is a problem with the average owner only using it once in a blue moon for menial DIY and gardening tasks as power drills and other similar tools sit, in large part, dormant in garages and lofts across Scotland, they carry a heavy sustainability cost. 

For the average time power drills are used across their lifespan it seems obvious that the components, some of which are expensive to make and are comprised of unsustainable matter or rare earth materials, there must be a better way to get the most from those materials before they are discarded.

One business in Edinburgh has a solution to this problem. Edinburgh Tool Library has been set up to work like a normal library, but instead of borrowing books, CDs, and computers, members can borrow drills, sanders, and steamers. Its aim of fighting waste is modelled on the circular economy – reducing, reusing, and recycling.

The tool library repairs tools, giving them second lives they otherwise wouldn’t have, and reclaims materials. But it is reducing the excess of tools and materials that are often wasted that it believes is the most important component to ensuring waste is kept to an absolute minimum. It’s a small and niche example of the good work that is happening in Scotland to fight over-consumption and waste.

Mary Michel, co-founder and director of Ostrero, an organisation that is working to grow the circular economy in Scotland, believes that community businesses like the Edinburgh Tool Library are the foundations of Scotland’s embryonic circular economy.

“There’s lots of grassroots community organisations that promote repair and reuse, but it’s really tough to do it and so if there was a strategy on how to be more circular and more support for the people in those organisations that would be really helpful.”

Building on the established community-led foundations, the Scottish Government has been on a long journey of promoting the benefits of the circular economy. In 2016, it launched Making Things Last, which set out a vision for building a circular society in Scotland. Since then, it has consulted twice on the plans for a bill which would tackle waste and form part of the wider plans for a new approach to reducing, reusing and recycling materials to help drive Scotland’s circular economy.

According to the Circularity Gap Report in 2022, Scotland’s economy was only 1.3 per cent circular, meaning it almost completely relied on new or virgin materials. Compare that to one of the world’s leaders in the circular economy, the Netherlands, whose economy is 24.5 per cent circular, and it’s clear that Scotland has a long way to go to make itself less wasteful.

Seven years since the Scottish Government began promoting a more circular approach to waste, circular economy minister Lorna Slater published the Circular Economy Bill in June 2023. The proposed legislation will give ministers the power to set targets for local recycling and for the delivery of a circular economy, ban the disposal of unsold consumer goods, and place charges on single-use items like coffee cups.

But there is still concern as the Scottish Government is yet to publish a finalised strategy to achieve a circular economy. However, it is being worked on as the consultation on The Circular Economy and Waste Route Map to 2030 ended in March. When the strategy is published, it will outline what the government intends to do, by when, and how it will work with others to drive sustainable use and management of resources. The government says it will be underpinned by four strategic aims; to reduce and reuse, modernise recycling, decarbonise disposal, and strengthen the circular economy.

While the bill states that “all parts of Scottish society” will have to “play their part” in building a more circular economy, it notes that the legislation will “primarily deliver enabling powers” and that secondary legislation will be required further down the line.  

And despite support across the Scottish Parliament’s chamber for the principle of such a bill, it has been heavily criticised for a number of reasons from opposition parties.

The biggest criticism is that the proposed legislation, which recently entered Stage 2, does not go far enough, and has left many at Holyrood labelling it as merely a recycling bill. 

Conservative MSP Maurice Golden is one of those voices and describes it a “retrograde approach” to the circular economy. He has no issues with what is in the bill, but says it is “not designed to deliver a circular economy”. 

Golden believes that it is missing substance around how we promote new, more sustainable consumption patterns, business models and public procurement – all key components of our existing economy he says would have to evolve to support a circular economy.

“Even with the very narrow scope of waste and littering, it is essentially just an enabling bill. It won’t actually do anything and there is potential for this government or a future government not to introduce any of the secondary legislation that is required to do something.”

Michel agrees that the bill mainly focuses on recycling and the product’s end of life and says “it should be going back to the beginning”. She believes that the legislation should include how we “design waste out” and how to “prevent waste”. 

She says one of the best ways to prevent waste is through mindset and behavioural change. “I think the massive gap in the bill is around skills and education. In the first draft of the bill there was nothing about that at all – it is just not in there. 

“I have been working in schools, colleges and universities since 2018 and we go in and ask a class, ‘who has ever heard of the circular economy?’ We have had only four hands up in six years. People simply don’t know what it is, and yet it is not complicated when you start talking about it – we work with children as young as four and they all get it.

“It doesn’t feel like a hard gap to plug, but for now it’s not in the bill.”

Michel points to Northern Ireland’s circular economy strategy, which at every stage of education states that circular economy teaching must be embedded in the curriculum.

The Scottish Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee published a report on the bill in February 2024 which recommended that the strategy  “include detail on how it will encourage behaviour change” and emphasised that it should be led through education and awareness-raising. 

The Finance and Public Administration Committee has also been critical of the bill, and in November last year published a report claiming the bill has a lack of financial transparency and accurate costings. 

It is estimated that it would cost the Scottish Government £1.6m over three years to implement the primary legislation. The cost to each local authority over the same period would be just over £200,000, while the bill the Scottish Environment Protection Agency would face was estimated at close to £900,000.

After analysing the numbers, the committee was “not convinced” that the financial memorandum in its current form “meets the requirements set out in the parliament’s standing orders to provide ‘best estimates of the costs, savings, and changes to revenues to which the provisions of the bill would give rise’”.

It was also heavily critical of how income will be generated to pay for the costs of the legislation.

Responding to the bill’s financial memorandum, the committee’s report said that there was an “assumption” that fines from fly-tipping and littering will have a 100 per cent payment rate, which the report said is “entirely unrealistic”, and argued that the money generated from fixed penalty notices “should not be used to ‘offset’ some of the costs of enforcement” in relation to issues such as fly-tipping. 

Committee convener Kenneth Gibson said the bill “reinforces” the groups’ concern that “affordability does not appear to be a key factor in Scottish Government decision-making”.

He said: “We’ve seen an increasing use of framework bills that provide government with future enabling powers. These do not, however, provide best estimates of all likely costs, and undermine parliamentary scrutiny.  

“It also risks the parliament passing legislation which may in the end – once outcomes are fully understood – lead to significant cost increases.

“The increased use of framework bills with no clear implementation costs poses a long-term risk to the Scottish Budget, both now and for successive governments.”

Tory MSP Maurice Golden is also highly critical of the decision to publish as a framework bill, telling Holyrood it “avoids Scottish Parliament scrutiny” and “delays any action”. 

“Are we seriously saying we need a piece of legislation before the Scottish Government can write a circular economy strategy?

“The financial costs are really important, whether that is to local authorities, businesses, or consumers. Financial assessments being left to secondary legislation means that you can only vote for or against, you can’t amend or properly scrutinise, and if they were on the face of the bill, while it makes it more difficult for the Scottish Government now, it actually makes it far more sensible and robust in the long term.”

Labour MSP Foysol Choudhury has also voiced concern with the bill at Holyrood, suggesting that the government needs to work with businesses, particularly small enterprises, and local authorities to avoid the same mistakes made with the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). 

He believes the Scottish Government should build on steps taken by other sectors to re-use materials and “help small businesses improve their reuse and recycling policies”. “Local councils need to be funded more if this is to work and the funding cuts that they are experiencing are not going to help. That is concerning because they are the ones that are going to be heavily involved in making this successful.”

Golden also worries about how businesses and local authorities will be affected by the bill. He suggests that the ban on the destruction of unsold consumer goods and waste reporting, particularly for small businesses, could “harm the relationship between Scotland and business”.

“I think if you add another layer of bureaucracy for microbusinesses, that won’t really help to ensure that a large proportion of waste is prevented. It is kind of minor and niche, and I think that could be problematic for businesses. 

“And there is a clear fear on the other side of alienating local authorities. The co-design approach, which is the model we already have had for 15 years, has delivered mid-40 per cent household recycling rates, so we know that approach doesn’t actually work. That is the proposal in the bill.

“What we need – Glasgow City Council is a good example of this – is to have it be brought into special measures to increase its recycling rate. We also need a plan for island communities around how they increase their recycling rates, because it’s far more challenging if you are in Orkney, for example.”

He added: “I fear the bill is ill-conceived and hasn’t been fully thought through. Reuse rates aren’t even mentioned in the bill. Ultimately it reeks of DRS 2.0.” 

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