Squaring the circle - how achievable is a circular economy?
The European Parliament says every European consumes, on average, 14 tonnes of raw materials per year and produces five tonnes of waste. In a push towards a more circular economy, it argues much of this waste could be reused, repaired or recycled.
The current economic model was formed by the dawn of mass production in the Industrial Revolution and is a linear construct based on a ‘take, make, use then dispose’ pattern of growth.
However, a circular economy would reduce the use of raw materials and waste using design, new production techniques, remanufacturing, distribution and reuse and repair.
A pan-European transition to a circular economy would generate around €1.8trn of benefit for European economies every year, a major report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation claimed in June.
Food, mobility and the built environment were identified by the foundation as areas which would benefit from a more circular economy.
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Following a report by the Green Alliance in January, the Scottish Government identified the potential benefits to Scotland, and opened a consultation on the concept, called Making Things Last.
The report’s author, Dustin Benton, head of energy and resources at Green Alliance, said Scotland was already ahead of other parts of the UK in terms of policy support.
“Its track record of success in renewables, combined with its research strengths and business support bodies, put it in a strong position to develop the technologies needed to capture high value, innovative manufacturing opportunities in a circular economy,” he said.
However, a move away from the current linear model of manufacturing and consumption will require a considerable cultural shift. Ross Martin, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), said businesses are already looking for routes to greater productivity amidst rising risks to resources.
“Many Scottish businesses are already benefitting from circular economy approaches, however, more must be encouraged to innovate and unlock greater economic growth while reducing waste, saving carbon emissions and increasing business resilience to future price shocks. SCDI welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to the circular economy vision, and looks forward to participating in this period of civic discussion to ensure Scotland’s economy remains sustainable and prosperous over the long term,” he said.
Making Things Last is due to report imminently, and was the hot topic of discussion at this year’s Scottish Resources Conference, which took place in Glasgow only a few weeks before the consultation closed on 30 October.
Falkirk lighting leasing firm Juice, Forfar-based Ogilvy Spirits and the Scottish Leather Group were among the organisations represented, and are currently being supported by Zero Waste Scotland to adopt more circular practices themselves, or encourage networks and key sectors to do so.
Juice has seen an uptake of LED lighting solutions in commercial properties. The company’s Colin McLaughlin said the support had helped it develop new business models. “Throughout the process, they [Zero Waste Scotland] have kept Juice focused on the end objective, challenged where necessary and provided support when we required. It is fair to say that we would not have been able to launch a ‘Rent a Light’ service without them.”
Ogilvy Spirits, a family-run farm in Forfar, takes low grade potatoes that would normally be used for cattle feed and turns them into high-value exportable vodka with a long shelf-life. Co-founder Graeme Jarron said: “I wanted to build a future for further generations, to create something from our farm’s produce, starting small, and then hopefully sharing it worldwide.”
The Scottish Resources Conference also saw the European commitment to the circular economy represented, with the EU Commission’s director for green economy, Kestutis Sadauskas, speaking at the event. He told the conference Scotland was a “clear front runner” in thinking on the topic.
The new EU circular economy package, set to be released in December, would emphasise separate recycling collections to improve the strength of the secondary materials markets by increasing the quality of paper, plastic, glass and metal, Sadauskas told delegates.
The new set of proposals follows a decision in Brussels in late 2014 to replace an original package with “more ambitious” revisions. One of the topics raised in the EU consultation had been the need to legislate for food waste, Sadauskas said.
Iain Gulland, chief executive, Zero Waste Scotland, said: “I was delighted to welcome an EU representative to the Scottish Resources Conference, to hear his international perspective on the circular economy, and to be able to share our examples of circular economy business development which are happening here in Scotland.”
Zero Waste Scotland has been working with the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSA) on a report into North Sea Oil and Gas Rig Decommissioning & Reuse opportunities. Early findings suggested the cost of decommissioning could be reduced while also reducing the environmental impacts associated with the disposal of materials. New oil and gas sub-sectors could develop in the supply chain, which would create new jobs in the sector, the report suggests.
Sophie Thomas, director of circular economy at the RSA, said the report’s recommendations are based on “practical auditing and cross-sector business creation”.
“There is untapped value and great opportunity for Scotland to develop a world-class circular industry around oil and gas rig decommissioning,” she said.
The RSA has been conducting a three-year project with Innovate UK called the Great Recovery programme, of which the research into oil and gas decommissioning is the latest work. Dan Epstein, a Great Recovery team member, said: “There are very few industries that lend themselves so readily to adoption of circular economy principles and practice.
“With a very large forward order book of oil and gas assets that will be decommissioned and removed from the North Sea over the next 20 years that have a potentially very significant reuse value, developing a comprehensive programme to land and reclaim all or part of those assets in the UK will create financial value, new skills and jobs and expertise in a globally important new sector.”
Can Scotland’s economy be transformed, though? The growth in recycling has been notable, with less than half of household waste in Scotland now being sent to landfill, but progress is slow. Figures published last month by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) showed only a slight increase in Scotland’s recycling rate, which was 42.8 per cent in 2014.
The total amount of household waste generated that year was 2.46 million tonnes, a drop of 18 per cent since 2007 when 3 million tonnes were generated.
Although 2014 saw more local authorities recycling the majority of their household waste, less than half of them managed to achieve 50 per cent. Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said the 12 councils who achieved it had set a benchmark for the rest.
“The Household Recycling Charter the Scottish Government is working with local authorities to develop should help achieve this. Bringing in consistent practices across Scotland should also make it easier and less confusing for people to recycle potentially valuable materials including paper, card, glass, plastics and food waste,” he said.
Food waste has dropped eight per cent since 2009, according to the figures, but is expected to feature in the circular economy strategy as an area with untapped potential. Sixty per cent of Scotland’s 600,000 tonnes of household food waste is avoidable, like unused leftover food, food that has gone off and been thrown away.
At the Scottish Resources Conference, Lochhead indicated he wants to introduce a formal food waste target, which will form part of the circular economy strategy.
The strategy will be the culmination of months of discussion, but cannot shift culture on its own. Terry A’Hearn, chief executive of SEPA, said: “In the 21st century, no society producing a lot of waste will have a successful economy.”
Gulland said Zero Waste Scotland had consulted people for ideas on how to make things last and shift from a “throwaway” society.
“While the trends show that a change in mindset is taking hold, and we are recognising that material we once thought of as waste has value as a resource which can create economic opportunity for Scotland, there’s still more to be done. Sustaining our good recycling habits, and encouraging others to take them up, is a commitment we can all easily make, with high rewards waiting for Scotland – both economically and environmentally – if we do.”