Scotland's next steps to achieving a circular economy

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:

What does a post-Blue Planet world mean for waste politics?

Last month in Edinburgh, MSPs, policy-makers and industry leaders convened at a Scotland Policy Conference to discuss next steps for waste and the circular economy north of the border. Unsurprisingly, plastics was the biggest talking point.

In her opening address, Claudia Beamish, Scottish Labour spokesperson for environment, climate change and land reform, spoke of how Blue Planet had transformed public attitudes to waste reduction.

“I’m quite frightened of forgetting my reusable cup these days,” she half-joked, adding that on a more serious note, a deposit return scheme (DRS) tailored to Scottish circumstances would be a “very progressive step” in tackling plastics pollution.

While the finer details of a DRS are still being thrashed out, Beamish said Scotland’s forthcoming Circular Economy Bill – due to surface within this parliament – would be fundamental in setting the governance for this.

She suggested a Scottish DRS could potentially target other materials besides plastic such as glass – a point echoed by Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland, who said it was worth examining whether the DRS concept could be applied to other materials in the future.

How a national or cross-border DRS might impact local authority waste collections and revenue remains to be seen, but Bruce Reekie, waste services manager for Perth & Kinross Council, said his local authority was taking a neutral position on the matter.

“We need investment and certainty at this moment in time,” he told delegates, but noted that if a DRS resulted in an uplift in separate material collections then this presented an opportunity for local authorities to work together on more effective materials capture.

Ewan MacDonald-Russell, head of policy and external affairs for the Scottish Retail Consortium, stressed the need for a UK-wide DRS given the potential for cross-border fraud, most notably the trafficking of deposit-bearing containers.

Waste crime

Scottish drinks manufacturer AG Barr has been reported as saying it costs around £400 to move a truckload of cans from England to Scotland, yet that truck could carry over £30,000 worth of deposits, meaning vast sums of cash could be claimed fraudulently.

To counter this, any containers produced or distributed in Scotland would need to carry specific labels or barcodes showing they are part of a DRS. MacDonald-Russell said introducing such labelling requirements would not only be “enormously expensive”, but would effectively change single pricing policies across different regions of the UK, meaning that a canned or bottled drink would cost more to buy in some places than others.

According to MacDonald-Russell, the introduction of any plastics tax or levy should be considered in the context of other policy measures or reform, such as the packaging recovery note (PRN) system. Plastic taxes, he added, risk creating “quite a lot of cost that could get passed onto consumers – we need to find the right balance here”.

Scottish policy-makers do seem keen on fiscal measures, however. Earlier this year the Scottish Government announced the launch of a new advisory group to tackle plastic pollution – the Expert Panel on Environmental Charges and Other Measures – which will explore the possibility of introducing levies or other measures on items such as disposable cups and plastic straws.

The aim of this work is to encourage the type of long-term consumer and producer behaviour change needed to move to a circular economy. Electoral commissioner Dame Sue Bruce, who chairs the panel, said it would be “asking questions about what we can do together in Scotland – as consumers, communities, producers, retailers and government – to radically change our attitudes and our use of single-use items”.

Gulland told delegates that policy context was fast-moving compared with five years ago, with momentum continuing to grow. “People want to take action now. There’s almost a queue at the door, people asking us ‘what can we do and how can you help us deliver?’”

Golden opportunity

He added that the circular economy represented a £2.5bn-£3bn economic opportunity for Scotland, and that industry professionals really needed to think about reframing conversations with their customers. “Over the next five years, I think there will be significant change in the waste arena,” he said. “The people in this room need to think differently, this is not about trying to sell waste, it’s about selling materials.”

As Scotland’s circular cities work continues to expand – with circular opportunities being explored in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen by mapping resource flows to establish supply and demand patterns – Glasgow is gearing up to host the Circular Economy Hotspot later this year, a major international event and trade mission.

Gulland told delegates there may be future potential to introduce waste collection zoning systems in Scottish cities, in which established zones or areas are served by one waste operator instead of several.

Potential benefits include reduced vehicle emissions and air pollution, more transparent pricing of collection services, improved recycling rates, as well as better worker/public health and safety. Such systems already operate in the US, most notably on the West coast in cities such as Seattle, Santa Barbara and Portland.

On the regulatory front, Rebecca Walker, head of national regulatory services at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, revealed that SEPA’s first three sector plans would be due out shortly covering landfill, metals recycling and whisky.

The plans will assess how each regulated entity in a sector is progressing against its environmental obligations, but will also look at where there are opportunities to move beyond compliance and promote better resource use. Walker added that two more sector plans – for waste tyres and oil/gas decommissioning – were in the planning stage, with a further 10 plans under development.

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