Scot the difference

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Special Report
Scotland’s environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham

Scotland’s environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, talks recycling targets, food waste, land reform and the circular economy north of the border. By Maxine Perella

One of the first things I spot when walking into Roseanna Cunningham’s parliamentary office in Edinburgh is a copy of Recycling & Waste World on her desk. Good call, minister. She warmly greets me, then it’s straight down to business as I’ve only been allotted 30 minutes to quiz the Scottish environment secretary on all matters waste-related.

It’s been seven months since Richard Lochhead, the architect of Scotland’s Zero Waste Plan, passed the baton onto Cunningham – and there have been a few changes to the portfolio. The remit now covers climate change and land reform as well as the environment, reflective of Scotland’s more holistic, progressive approach to waste policy. Cunningham is quick to point out the synergies that exist.

“Land reform is a big thing in Scotland – when you’re talking about the land, you’re also talking about the environment. You’re also talking about climate change because of the way the land is used,” she says.

“Take recycling and waste – although you can set out obvious environmental, social and moral benefits for what you’re doing, the fact is that if you get this right you’re also going to reduce emissions, you’re probably also going to be using the land in a much more productive way. Scotland has done very well in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and within that the waste sector has contributed quite substantially.”

Mid-term report

Delving into the more tangible aspects of Scotland’s 2010 Zero Waste Plan, which set out a range of legislative measures – landfill bans, separate food waste collections, restrictions on inputs to energy-from-waste facilities and a 70% national recycling target – I ask the minister how much headway she feels has been made in the past six years. “Short answer: good progress, could do a lot better,” she says.

So, given that Scotland’s recycling rate is hovering at around 44%, is the 70% target achievable by 2025? “I very much hope so. We’ve done quite well up to now. There’s a real opportunity among the councils to really make a big dent in this, and we do have councils who are nearing 60% in terms of recycling.”

One of Cunningham’s first priorities in this regard is to encourage every local authority, of which there are 32 in Scotland, to commit to the Charter for Household Recycling to deliver more consistency in service provision. Currently, 21 councils have signed up to the charter, and the minister isn’t ruling out further intervention if necessary.

“What we’re trying to do is make the benefits obvious for local councils so they can see straight away what’s in it for them. There’s a little way to go yet, but we’re beginning to think about realigning the support we give out to those who are signing up. If we can’t nudge and encourage, we may come back and have a look at how we could push this a little harder.”

Push or pull?

It’s unlikely, however, that Scotland will go so far as to impose statutory recycling targets on local authorities. Cunningham says she is keen to use pull, rather than push, measures. “We’re not currently thinking of doing what Wales has done – Wales imposes targets on individual councils and then reserves the right to fine councils that haven’t achieved the targets.”

Scotland is keen to demonstrate leadership, however, and it is certainly doing that in the area of food waste. Last year the government announced a food waste reduction goal – targeting a 33% cut by 2025. If such ambition is achieved, it will effectively put the country on track to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030. Although the target is not mandatory at this point in time, Cunningham confirms that the Scottish government will be consulting in due course about whether to make it statutory.

So, what type of policy interventions might be introduced to help meet this goal?

“That’s one of the things we are currently discussing,” the minister says, hinting that the food waste regulations may be strengthened. “There are some issues around very rural areas for food waste collections – the 2012 regulations don’t force food waste collections from islands and from very rural areas, and we’re looking at that, so that may change.”

Acknowledging the scale of the challenge ahead, she adds: “We’re very good at setting ourselves targets. But if you don’t apply a stretching target then you don’t go that extra effort to get there. Better stretched in pursuit of ambition than not.”

Targets aside, Cunningham believes that one of the biggest challenges faced in the fight against food waste is behaviour change. “You can’t stop people buying too much food by any process of compulsion, you need to do that by a process of education – and appeal to their pocket. The whole idea is to prevent waste in the first place. So if I can be persuaded to scrub my potatoes, instead of peeling them, then that’s prevention.”

Changing recycling behaviour

So, might we see a return to the days of national communication campaigns?

“I certainly wouldn’t want to rule it out,” she says, but highlights the fact that such campaigns are very costly to produce. There is also the more pointed question of how you turn short-term behaviour change into a long-term habit. “Certainly food waste has reduced and people are becoming more savvy, but still not to the extent that you would have thought. It’s a puzzle, it’s a genuine puzzle.”

Both the food waste reduction goal and the household recycling charter feed into Scotland’s work on the circular economy – good outcomes from both initiatives will help lay some solid foundations for circular action. Cunningham says the circular economy makes sound business sense, and that needs to be reflected in policy.

“What’s really important is getting this whole circular economy idea embedded into the economy sector. In that sense, it takes it from outside of my portfolio – we want manufacturers to be thinking about it, we want businesses to be looking at it, we want potential new start-ups to come out of it. Often actions in and around this area are seen simply as a cost and a burden, when in actual fact they are an enormous opportunity.”

Key driver

The circular economy already features as an integral part of Scotland’s manufacturing action plan, which was published last year, and is a key driver behind the University of Strathclyde’s Scottish Institute for Remanufacture, which opened in 2015.

Add to this the government’s £70 million circular economy investment fund and service to target SME innovation, which will be delivered by Zero Waste Scotland and Scottish Enterprise.

“We’re taking the manufacturing opportunity here very seriously indeed. I’m not seeing [the circular economy] as something we’re piloting in a geographical area, I’m seeing it as something that can be rolled out right across all sectors,” says Cunningham.

It seems an opportune moment to mention extended producer responsibility – could this be the next big policy intervention north of the border? Or at least something that the government is seriously considering?

“That’s something we will want to start real debate on,” the minister says. And before I can ask any more questions, a ministerial aide knocks at the door: time’s up.

Five things I can't live without...

  • Family and friends: They are what really count. It’s the non-material things that are important
  • My faith: I’m a Catholic
  • Kindle: It’s like walking around with a library in your handbag
  • iPad: A communications device that connects you to everybody. I just find it extraordinary
  • A decent cup of coffee: Ideally every day, from Java Lava café in Crieff

Roseanna Cunningham CV

Perthshire South and Kinross-shire MSP Roseanna Cunningham has been a minister in the Scottish Government since 2009 where she has covered three portfolios, the first of which was environment. As environment minister, she led the Crofting Bill and the Wildlife & Natural Environment Bill through parliament. In 2011, she took on a new role as minister for community safety and legal affairs, her remit covering sectarianism, fire service reform and community integration.

Following Nicola Sturgeon’s appointment as first minister in November 2014, she was promoted to the new post of cabinet secretary for fair work, skills and training, before replacing Richard Lochhead as cabinet secretary for environment, climate change and land reform in May 2016.

Prior to becoming a minister, Cunningham trained as a solicitor and worked with several local authorities in Scotland as well as private firms before being called to the Scottish Bar as an advocate in 1990.

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