Scotland's circular economy: in the round

Donna Wood, Brian Menzies and Terri Vogt look at examples of Scotland’s circular economy in action, and discuss what it will take for this approach to be more widely adopted

As professionals, we know the production and consumption of goods contributes enormously to our environmental impact. With the world’s population estimated to exceed nine billion by 2050, and the global middle class expected to reach 5.3bn by 2030, consumption behaviour is expected to lead to increases in demand for food, water and energy by approximately 35%, 40% and 50% respectively by 2030 (bit.ly/3owYHZh). It is estimated that consumption accounts for 74% of Scotland’s carbon footprint, and this only fell by 8% between 1998 and 2015, according to the Scottish government’s report Scotland’s Carbon Footprint: 1998-2015 (bit.ly/33BR3V5).Our globalised economy has made communities reliant on the movement of goods and materials from around the world, resulting in significant carbon footprints. This also applies to the materials we collect for recycling, much of which is shipped elsewhere – in some cases to parts of the world that do not have the infrastructure to deal with it responsibly. 

A circular economy could drive change: Zero Waste Scotland’s Corporate Plan (bit.ly/37A7Bhs) states that actions to develop more circular economies could reduce Scotland’s carbon footprint by a fifth by 2050.

World trade is expected to fall by between 13% and 32% in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. While in many ways this is depressing, the resulting reduction in emissions, and the changes to many working practices, may have created space in which we can consider the value of more circular business models. Such models often involve reducing waste, reusing, repairing, remaking and finally recycling materials. A growing number of businesses are recognising the value this approach can add, both to themselves and to their customers. 

Zero Waste Scotland’s cities and regions programme is an example of an initiative supporting change; it works with local companies and individuals to help them develop more circular business models. Case studies from the Circular North-east programme in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire show this (see box, right). In many cases, these business models rely on shorter, local supply chains that carry less risk than importing from abroad and are less susceptible to supply chain shocks.

Community benefits

Circular business models bring consumer and community benefits as well as business benefits. The repair and remanufacture economy is growing, and provides a reliable supply of local products. Scotland’s 2016 circular economy strategy, Making Things Last, reported that 17,000 people in the nation were employed in remanufacturing, contributing £1.1bn to annual economic activity. It also stated that: “Across 16 manufacturing sub-sectors, there is the potential to create an additional £620m turnover and 5,700 new jobs by 2020.” 

XS Resources, a community interest company in north-east Scotland, is one example, collecting unwanted electricals and technology for re-use through the UK’s Recycle Your Electricals campaign. Electrical waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. Waste charity Wrap estimates that re-using electrical equipment can save six times as much carbon as recycling it, and that hoarded household electricals cost the UK economy £370m per year in lost valuable raw materials such as gold, copper, aluminium and steel. Working with local charities and local authorities, XS Resources ensures appliances are kept in use for longer and provides lower-cost alternative to new items, as well as employment and volunteering opportunities. Items that cannot be re-used are recycled. 

Another example is the Scotland Excel procurement framework, which enables local authorities across Scotland to buy pre-owned furniture through a charity provider network. This has increased furniture quality in temporary accommodation, reduced carbon emissions, and helped grow the third sector.

Looking to the future

These examples show that the circular economy presents new economic opportunities which can helps us build a new, greener economy. In October 2020, Zero Waste Scotland released its report The Future of Work, which highlighted that nearly one in 10 Scottish jobs is already related to the circular economy. Many of these are in core areas such as repairing and recycling goods, but there is significant opportunity for growth in construction, bioeconomy and capital projects, including decommissioning oil rigs and wind farms.

A number of start-ups are recognising these opportunities. Innovation is taking place: insect farming is generating feed from food waste, which reduces the need to import crops such as soy; chemicals are being extracted from algae or seaweed to replace oil-derived alternatives; crops are being grown for materials such as insulation.

Despite this, there are still challenges when it comes to mainstreaming many circular products. Consumer concerns remain about using refurbished or recycled products over new ones, and recycled materials must compete with the low cost of ‘virgin’ alternatives. For existing companies, there is the challenge of facilitating change; you might be part of a complex supply chain, with limited control over materials sourcing or aspects such as packaging. Organisations are starting to address this by incorporating circular economy requirements into procurement.

Programmes such as Zero Waste Scotland’s circular economy cities and regions programme and the London Waste and Recycling Board’s business support programme have been important in raising awareness and supporting businesses to move towards a circular economy. 

However, we need bolder fiscal, policy and regulatory changes if we are to accelerate uptake and enable faster commercialisation of the ideas that are being developed. 

More information

Information about ZWS support for companies looking to make changes, or for those looking to start up a circular business, can be found at zerowastescotland.org.uk/circular-economy/investment-fund


North-east Scotland: Case studies

Origin – developing local micro-circular economies to recycle plastic
Origin uses local plastic waste in the design and manufacture of new products, reducing pollution as well as associated carbon impacts from shipping. It also connects users to its product development by showcasing its design workflow and associated injection moulding process.

  • Origin says: “We create ‘micro-circular’ economies within localised communities, with a heightened consumer buy-in that results from transparency and accessibility. We believe that ‘micro-circular’ adds up to ‘macro-impact’.”

Legasea – promoting reuse through decommissioning
Legasea works in the oil and gas decommissioning sector as a subsea specialist. It realises the value of recovered subsea systems through disassembly to component parts, which can be refurbished, recertified and reused. 

  • Legasea says: “We help drive demand for reuse, both in the oil and gas industry and more widely, as companies seek to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations accelerating the move towards net-zero.”

KR Cladding – diverting waste from landfill
KR Cladding is developing a business model to produce remanufactured and recertified insulation products, sourced from demolished and refurbished buildings. 

  • KR Cladding says: “We struggled watching large amounts of waste steel cladding go to landfill and are looking to develop a new product stream to prevent this and add value to our business.”

Donna Wood is project manager at XS Resources.
Brian Menzies, MIEMA Cenv, is director at XS Resources and Enscape Consulting.
Terri Vogt, MIEMA Cenv, is project manager at Circular Economy North-east.

Image Credit | Getty Images
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