Getting businesses to follow a truly environmentally-friendly route is a notoriously tricky one.
Firms large and small may start off with the best of intentions, with the aim of bringing more sustainable practices into the workplace, but when the economic reality kicks in – and the changes maybe mean extra investment or higher costs in the short term – these good ideas can be put on the backburner or shelved entirely as directors and managers are unwilling to take too much of a risk.
But as the price of oil and manufacturing costs rise and materials become scarcer, there is a growing support for a move towards an economic model that can be sustained – the circular economy.
Research from Westminster’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on Resource Security in 2012, which compiled data on commonly-mined materials worldwide, found essential components used in everyday items had been assessed as insecure or at risk by a number of respected authorities.
Indium, for example, which is used in LCD screens, was highlighted in separate reports from the EU Raw Materials Group, the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.
Gold, copper, silver and lead are all other elements that have been mined, although not to exhaustion, at least to the stage where assessments have been made on how many years’ supply is left if further stocks are not found.
The United Nations Environment Programme resources panel prepared a series of reports in 2010 looking at the global reliance on metals, which included the prediction that if developing countries were to enjoy the same levels of use of metals in manufacturing as industrialised countries, then stocks would need to be as much as nine times higher than at present.
This month the model of the circular economy – based on the idea that goods are made to be continually ‘remanufactured’, rather than either ending up buried in landfill, melted down into inferior goods or burnt to produce energy – will be discussed at a conference in Edinburgh hosted by the Scottish Environmental Technology Network.
It will feature innovators wanting more information on how to bring their solutions to create a more circular economy, or to get the necessary access to finance.
Director of SETN, Colin Cunningham, said the conference will attract people from a wide audience, including local authorities and those running businesses. He said: “One of the things SETN does is bring these people together and try and build the confidence in these technologies, in the approaches, and confidence that this is going to be a long-term market.
“The more you can show people through examples that you have real economic benefit as well as environmental benefits, the money follows, as well as investors follow.
“The Holy Grail for us is to find solutions and technologies and intellectual property and things that we can then scale up and take internationally [to] get a bit of leadership in the global marketplace. But where we can’t do that, at the very least what we can do is we can deal with our own domestic arrangements in Scotland and make that an opportunity for the Scottish businesses.” And he said the concept of the circular economy is not necessarily a new one.
“We keep introducing terms for what are effectively the same thing,” he said. “Which is living as if we really did have only one place, one amount of resources, realising that things run out and it’s just better for everybody, better for the planet, economics, to think in a circular way.” He uses his own experience growing up in Rosslyn in the 1970s to demonstrate: “We unfortunately had a coal fire and the ash from the coal fire went in the bin. But other than that, the papers made the paper sticks that lit the fire, food waste, of which there was hardly any, went to the compost heap which went back in the garden, I still have a bedcover made from my clothes when I was at pre-school, it’s like a patchwork quilt with each of these bits of fabric and instead of it being thrown away or given away, it was actually made into something else.” In the years since, he says, society has not only got out of the habit of reuse, but has gone much further.
“We’ve cynically developed an economy and a way of living that really designs in obsolescence, designs things to be obsolete. Because, if you don’t factor in the real environmental cost, and you just look at the money not the value, you can make money by taking things and throwing them away.
It’s short term; it’s not particularly fair.” The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, formed by the record-breaking yachtswoman, has been at the forefront of a move towards a circular economy after it presented an economic report to the World Economic Forum last year.
Its first economic report said $700bn could be saved in the EU alone from making the switch and provided sufficient interest that by the time this year’s event in Davos came about, instead of presenting to a room of 30 people, the foundation was at the top table in five separate events. It has launched a programme called the Circular Economy 100, which is getting major firms such as Marks and Spencer, Coca Cola and Renault to sign up to the business model.
The Foundation estimates $2trn could be saved worldwide each year by moving to a circular economy.
More specifically in Scotland, the focus has also been on the education side of things, and government agencies Zero Waste Scotland and Education Scotland have funded one of the two officers going into secondary schools, where the concept is worked into subjects right across the curriculum, particularly the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.
Development officer Colin Webster, who will be speaking for the Foundation at the SETN conference at Edinburgh’s Radisson Hotel, said: “Young people love the message, because it’s a very positive message about the future.
“A lot of the messages out there tend to be more negative. We’re saying with clever design, we can fix what is essentially a broken system and create something that’s positive and regenerative.” Most recently, the Foundation hosted a series of workshops with the MAKLAB, an open source design studio in Glasgow, which were aimed at designers, engineers and teachers of design and technology and science.
Webster added: “One of the conclusions from our economic reports is that the opportunities are there now for innovators to jump in and really make a difference.
“Probably one of the biggest obstructions is existing technologies that are out there – firms that have invested heavily in technologies that kind of locks them in to the liner system of making stuff in a particular way, so you’re not getting it back again.” Crucial to its concept is introducing better design into how products are made – for example, designing products so they can be easily disassembled at the end of their ‘first life’, with innovations like smart memory screws that lose their thread when they are heated to a particular temperature.
He adds that the value to businesses soon becomes apparent: “Material prices in the last 10 years, copper has risen 10-fold, gold, six-times and lead, five times. A century’s decline in commodity prices from 1900 to 2001 is wiped out in the rises we’ve subsequently had. “Across the EU, the average cost of raw materials in 2012 was €500m more than in 2011. In one manufacturer’s case, that was half their operating profit wiped out and they said to us that their business model of selling cars and then forgetting about them is now defunct.” The Foundation says the focus also needs to be on the collection of the materials, whether this continues to be done by local authorities or by the companies themselves through a leasing agreement or repurchase schemes.
One of the issues with encouraging the necessary innovation to get the circular economy off the ground is access to finance.
According to Cunningham, while paradoxically, recessions and economic downturns can be good for innovation as people concentrate on where waste can be cut from a manufacturing process, there is sometimes a “disconnect” between people wanting to invest and those with the ideas to be taken forward – which is one of the reasons SETN is now holding its seventh annual conference.
There is too a big role for government to play and Cunningham praises the Scottish Government and its agency Zero Waste Scotland for being quick to grasp the concept.
The Government’s Zero Waste Plan was launched in June 2010 and one of its specific aims was for investment to be supported in “innovative resource management technologies”, which includes the Recycling Innovation Fund, providing support of up to £169,000 for pilot schemes which divert waste away from landfill and increase resources for a “closed-loop” system.
Iain Guilland, director of Zero Waste Scotland, said: “We’ve always championed innovation, we always believe we can increase recycling rates on a gradual basis, but the step change that we need in terms of zero waste and the circular economy does need new innovative technologies and practices and ways of doing business.
“It is about bringing people together, a lot of the work we do is looking at key sectors where there’s common challenges and common opportunities, trying to get them to be aware of what those challenges are and then trying to reflect that back to the innovators and universities and people with the good ideas, that are trying to work on those challenges rather than just try to sell a product into the market place, trying to get people thinking about what we need to change going forward.” Guilland also believes that there will be a dramatic shift in the next five years towards a truly circular economy and adds: “The challenge for Scotland is are we going to be part of that shift, or are we just going to watch it happen and try to catch up at some later stage.”