We have a problem with stuff, writes LINK’s sustainable economics officer Phoebe Cochrane. Recently published data shows that people in Scotland consume about 18 tonnes per person per year, while a sustainable amount is estimated to be about 8 tonnes.
People inherently hate waste, and instinctively know our ‘throw away’ culture can’t be good for the planet. What is less well known perhaps, is the key role our use and waste of materials has in the climate and nature crises. We often hear that Scotland is doing well in addressing climate change and, indeed, we are doing OK in reducing the emissions that occur in Scotland.
However, the energy that goes into making products we use emits a huge amount of carbon: 80% of our carbon footprint, much of it overseas. It is also estimated that 90% of biodiversity loss is caused by the extraction and processing of materials. So, our instinct is right and things need to change, pretty radically.
Despite excellent initiatives like refill aisles and repair cafes, cutting our waste can be difficult. Your phone stops working and there’s no information available to help you fix it, so you buy a new one. Your delivery comes in packaging that you can’t reuse or recycle. You put out your recycling, but with a niggling suspicion that a lot of it won’t ever be turned into something new. We need systemic change and everyone needs to be involved.
Critically we need action from governments to create a more ‘circular’ economy in which products are designed to last, waste and pollution are minimised, and everything is used again and again.
The Scottish government was an early proponent of a circular economy, being the first in the UK to ban plastic stemmed cotton buds and commit to a deposit return system for bottles and cans. Much has been accomplished, but there’s so much more to do.
Very encouragingly, the newly formed Holyrood administration has appointed a new minister for green skills, circular economy and biodiversity. It has promised to introduce a Circular Economy Bill within this parliament, and given the urgency of the challenges we face, this should be brought in as soon as possible. But there are a number of other important measures the Scottish government should move forward with in the meantime.
For example, it should require public authorities, which are major consumers, to use their purchasing power to choose environmentally friendly goods, services and works. This would make an important contribution to sustainable consumption and production, through repairing existing products, purchasing second-hand, requiring recycled content in goods, and renting rather than purchasing.
The deposit return scheme for drinks containers, due to be implemented in July 2022, should be the pre-cursor to deposit schemes for other products such as reusable coffee cups.
We have fantastic repair and re-use enterprises, some of which can’t cope with the demand for their services. The government should establish bigger re-use hubs in our cities which combine training with repairing and selling of second-hand items.
When the promised Circular Economy Bill is introduced, to ensure it drives real change it should include headline targets on reducing Scotland’s overall use of raw materials. Tracking progress on these would show us whether we are heading in the right direction. The Netherlands has such a target and the European Parliament has recommended the European Commission develops one. The bill should also include a duty to produce plans mapping out how to reduce our footprint.
A more circular economy must be at the heart of a green recovery. By hardwiring wiser and less wasteful use of ‘stuff’ into the system, we can design an economy that works better for the planet and for people.
Sign the petition for Scottish circular economy at scotlink.org/stuff.
This article was first published in the Scotsman on 21 September 2021.
Image © Catherine Gemmell/Marine Conservation Society