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Scotland Charges Forward in Its Role as the World's 'Circular Economy Hotspot'

Image credit: Zero Waste Scotland/Vimeo

This week, circular economy experts from over 20 countries convened in Scotland as Glasgow hosted the third annual Circular Economy Hotspot. Glasgow used the occasion to announce its intention to become Scotland’s first circular city — this will involve Glasgow City Council publishing the country’s first circular economy route map with a key target to power 15 percent of the city’s homes with renewable energy by 2030.

Scotland is well-known for its leadership on circularity and has spent the past few years mapping out where the best economic opportunities might lie as it looks to make this transition. Speaking at the event, Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS), said strategy had initially focused on sector-led opportunities, but this had since been dropped in favor of a more regional approach.

“The importance of addressing this at a city level has got the circular economy up and running in Scotland and allowed us to get deeper into communities,” he told delegates.

Gulland added that city leaders were more open to engaging in pre-competitive dialogue than, perhaps, businesses — a process that can help accelerate the sharing of best practice. On a strategic level, the circular city movement is also working in tandem with Scotland’s zero-waste towns agenda — as Gulland put it, a “bottom-up approach that complements the top-down regional approach.”

Scotland currently has four circular economy regions — Glasgow, Edinburgh, Tayside and North East. ZWS’s own work suggests that they could collectively benefit from a £1 billion boom created by reducing waste and keeping materials in circulation. In the North East, Aberdeen’s offshore oil and gas industry, for example, is exploring opportunities to reuse and remanufacture decommissioned equipment, while Tayside’s farming and soft fruit sector is examining how best to put its byproducts to better use.

On the innovation front, plenty of pilot work is taking place. The University of Edinburgh has identified a low-carbon method of gold recovery from electronics that could potentially reduce CO2 emissions by 13,000 tonnes while generating up to £140 million in the reuse and recovery of precious materials.

Meanwhile, manufacturer Highland Galvanizers is extending the safe working life of motorway crash barriers by recoating them before rust sets in, so that the steel is preserved and can remain in use for at least another 25 years. This could deliver savings of £4 million and 8,200 tonnes of CO2 in Scotland’s South East region over the typical barrier lifetime.

According to Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, a circular economy very much speaks to Scotland’s history and sense of identity.

“In many ways, Scotland — through inventions like James Watt’s steam engine — led the world into the industrial age. Our opportunity now — indeed, I would argue, our obligation — is to play our part in leading the world into the low-carbon age.”

Gary Gillespie, chief economics advisor for the Scottish Government, told delegates that circularity is not only acting as lever to help meet Scotland’s ambitious climate change targets, but being integrated with other policy areas such as waste, biodiversity and natural capital. The next step may be to link it with communities and people as the city agenda grows.

Katherine Trebeck, research director at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, questioned how the circular economy could become an advocate of a wider economic shift. She highlighted research from Oxfam suggesting that the poorest half of the world’s population are responsible for just 10 percent of lifestyle consumption carbon emissions. “There’s a huge imbalance of who is putting pressure on the planet,” she said.

This then results in inequality when it comes to accessing resources — in Scotland, for example, one in five people live in poverty.

“The costs of hanging onto an economic model which is no longer fit for purpose are adding up,” Trebeck told delegates. She added that this results in “failure demand” — a situation whereby £1 in every £5 spent on UK public services compensates for the way in which poverty is damaging people’s lives.

Arguing that there was a growing need for a wellbeing economy that works for people, Trebeck said that a huge change in mindset was needed and that going circular may help with this challenge. Echoing her thoughts, Dr. Leyla Acaroglu, founder of Disrupt Design and UnSchool, spoke of the need to change our consumption habits.

“If we don’t change the way we perceive goods and services in the economy, we will perpetuate the problem,” she said. “Waste has become socially normalized — we deflect a lot of our responsibility outside of the system.”

Dr. Acaroglu has been working on a new project, Circular Classroom — an interactive online toolkit for teachers and students help integrate circular thinking into the education system. “Our biggest challenge is to design for a circular outcome,” she told delegates. “We have designed societies that lean towards disposability. Now, we need to redesign our systems to be post-disposable.”


Maxine is an environmental journalist working in the field of corporate sustainability, circular economy and resource risk.

[Read more about Maxine Perella]


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