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What goes around: How the circular economy will change the way we interact with products and services

Two consultations launched by circular economy minister Lorna Slater, just over a year ago, promised the “start of a national conversation” towards delivering a circular economy for Scotland | Alamy

What goes around: How the circular economy will change the way we interact with products and services

A year and a half ago, King Charles described COP26 as the “last-chance saloon” to save the planet from the climate emergency. As we get closer to the point of no return the Scottish Government is preparing to publish its Circular Economy Bill, designed to drastically slash the country’s carbon footprint.

Two consultations launched by circular economy minister Lorna Slater, just over a year ago, promised the “start of a national conversation” towards delivering a circular economy for Scotland. The Scottish Government plans to bring the bill forward later this year in the hope that it will give Scotland the powers to encourage citizens to consume differently, use resources efficiently and, hopefully, boost the economy. The system-wide switch will be a seismic shift, but as the King said in his speech in Glasgow, “We must now translate fine words into still finer actions”.  

But what is a circular economy, and how will it impact our carbon emissions? Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) estimates that four-fifths of Scotland’s carbon footprint comes from products and services – and what is more concerning is Scotland’s material footprint per capita is 21.7 tonnes, nearly double the global average of 11.9 tonnes, despite having cut almost three-quarters of emissions from the waste and resources sector in the last 20 years. Slater explained to MSPs in 2021 that “instead of an economy where we take, make, and dispose, that we design to last – reusing and repairing while wasting as little as possible”. 

Alongside the development of legislation, the Scottish Government is also creating a plan to become more circular towards 2025.   

Toni Freitas, a lecturer in circular economy at the University of Edinburgh, says that the shift is “vital to reaching our net zero emission targets [by 2045]”. She explains that until now the “primary focus of countries around the world” has been “on the transition to new energy and energy efficiency”, which she says is quite right. But “on average that only addresses about 55 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions”. The remaining 45 per cent comes from the production of items like cars, clothes, and food. 

“We will only get to a certain point if we only look at energy transition and efficiency, then we have to look critically at how we use and consume everything, and that is where the circular economy framework can be incredibly useful,” Freitas explains. 

Finding ways to extend a product’s life, and reusing and remanufacturing the materials to give them second and third lives is becoming glaringly important. A report from ZWS in March found that although textiles make up only four per cent of household waste by weight, they contribute to 32 per cent of Scotland’s carbon impacts – the emissions contributed before a product becomes waste, such as growing the fibres, manufacturing, packaging and transport. 

That is not the only reason for moving away from our current linear economy in which we produce, use, and discard, says Winifred Ijomah, technical director of The Scottish Institute for Remanufacturing and Reader at the University of Strathclyde. There are “limited raw materials, limited landfill, rising energy and labour costs” to contend with. She argues that if countries are not operating a circular economy, “your products are actually more expensive than competitors” who are.  

Shifting to an economy in which the design of products and services are geared towards the potential of remanufacturing, reusing, and refurbishing while producing as little emissions as possible has uprooted where recycling sits in the hierarchy of sustainable practice. 

Ijomah explains: “Most people think that recycling is environmentally friendly, but it isn’t. If you recycle something you take a product that already has energy put into making it, and then if you want to make something useful with that recycled material you need to put further energy into it. We need to use products over and over again at their highest value, with the ultimate aim to limit or prohibit disposal into landfill.” 

Freitas agrees, adding that “recycling is the lowest form of circular economy” and “we shouldn’t be getting to the recycling part until the very last point of the product life cycle”. And the introduction of the Deposit Return Scheme next year, which aims to increase single-use drinks container recycling rates, is something that she says, “has worked for decades in a lot of different countries, but actually are we beyond that?”   

“There are eight or nine different ways of looking at things, we can look at how we reuse, repair, refurbish things to make them last longer at as high a value as possible.” 

The introduction of the circular economy is changing the way in which the design of products is planned and executed. And the best example of this is in universities. Dr Paul Smith, who teaches circular economy at The Glasgow School of Art, described how a new generation of designers is being taught a new perspective of sustainable practice.  

He says: “At the start, it was about how we design our physical world around us to encourage less wasteful consumerism. But as it has evolved over the years it has become much broader. We think about a product, but that on its own might not be enough to deliver a society or a community that is more environmentally consumer friendly, it is also now about how we organise our construction of buildings to be less impactful. It is focused on material choices, really scrutinising the materials; where it has been extracted from, how it is transported, how we process that, how it is manufactured, but then how it performs over its lifetime. 

“We also think about how we design our built environments, what systems and services need to be in place, and that is crucial for the circular economy.” 

Ijomah explains that in a circular economy design of future products must consider that “there comes a time when it can no longer be used in the original sector”. Product and service designers have to consider “what other sector can it be used in”.  

Reframing how citizens interact with materials is set to drastically change too. Freitas explains that ownership of certain items isn’t necessary if we want to get the maximum amount of value from them. 

“Sometimes this will mean replacing the way we own things. Why do we have to own everything? On average most cars in Europe are parked for 92 per cent of the time. So do we need to own a car, or do we have a much broader look at what transportation means and adopt more of car sharing system.” 

Expertise is essential in making the move towards a more sustainable economy, and Ijomah, who helped to inform the UK circular economy gap report, believes that “Scotland has that”. But what is crucial is “bringing it together”; bringing academia, industry, legislators, and citizens together. 

But what about businesses and their concerns? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leader in circular economy advocacy, believes that there are potentially trillions of dollars to be made from the circular economy. Freitas says that the change only “adversely affects” businesses “that aren’t willing to adapt”. She suggests that there is room for the Scottish Government to “give tax incentives or reductions to businesses that are actively shifting to a circular economy”. 

Freitas also argues that individuals can be encouraged to buy into the change in the system by supporting organisations that are “promoting circular economy”. One of which is ZWS.  

Peter McCafferty, circular economy business support framework manager for ZWS says: “What we are finding is that increasingly, younger companies and startup companies are very invested in making their business circular and sustainable from the outset.  

“I think where there are more challenges, and that is not to say there isn’t buy-in from companies to do it, but when you look at more entrenched companies that have really complex supply chains the case for them to make that transition is more difficult.” 

There is a real opportunity for a country to become the world leader in circular economy according to Ijomah, as this is not a Scottish issue, “it is a global problem”. She suggests that the country that gets ahead first “will get the lion’s share of the opportunities that are available to the circular economy”.  

“Very often people think the circular economy is a threat – and it is in a way because we need it to ensure our industrial sustainability. But it is going to provide many opportunities for job and wealth creation.” 

She believes we need to take the lead from China. She cites that in the UK we have one centre for expertise, which is in Scotland, but says “it is very small”. The Chinese have larger centres for expertise, as well as demonstration centres for manufacturers to learn new ways of working. 

“They have got circular economy in their four-year plan, and it is all backed by legislation. We need legislation for Scotland, and we need to develop the right curriculum.”

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