Is Scotland being left behind in the transition to a circular economy?

09 Mar 2023

At the end of last year the European Environment Agency (EEA) published the report, ‘Circular Economy policy innovation and good practice in Member States’, which highlights areas of progress in countries across Europe. As well as good examples, the report examines the barriers and challenges which are shared across EU countries.

In this blog I have picked out some examples that caught my attention, as they highlight things Scotland could be doing, but isn’t.

It is no secret that consumption based targets with linked delivery plans are at the heart of Scottish Environment LINK’s, and our members’, circular economy demands.

The EEA report finds: ‘The number of EU Member States that use consumption based indicators, such as RMC (Raw Material Consumption) and the material footprint, has increased considerably to 12 (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, FinIand, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Slovakia), compared to just five countries at the time of the last survey in 2019.’

And ‘…. early CE [circular economy] adopters, such as Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands, are following up their first policies (2016–2017) by active (sectorial) stakeholder involvement through, for example, strategic/transition agendas to identify finance and implement concrete CE measures’.

So Scotland, which in the past has been counted among the forerunners in moving towards a more circular economy, has some catching up to do. With Scotland’s circular economy strategy Making Things Last published in 2016, we should be well on the way to comprehensive sectoral plans laying out concrete agendas. Although work has been going on to support circularity in different sectors, a comprehensive approach has been sorely missing.

The forthcoming Circular Economy Bill and route map bring some hope, but the danger is that time frames stretch and in the meantime the Scottish economy continues to hoover up raw materials at a rate that is incompatible with global carbon and nature goals and Scotland’s position on international justice. We need the Circular Economy Bill to set consumption based targets as soon as possible, following the leaders in Europe. Scotland’s Material Flow Accounts show us that our raw material consumption is currently nearly treble what is widely considered a sustainable level.

We often hear that it is pointless setting targets without the plans to deliver them. I would argue that the targets are needed to drive the development of the plans. Scotland did not wait for delivery plans to set the climate change targets – the targets were set and the delivery plans have followed, in the shape of the Climate Change Plans. The same approach should be used for addressing our consumption impacts.

There are many innovative ideas, examples of good practice, and individuals willing to be involved in developing plans to reduce our material consumption. If the Scottish Government is unsure about pathways, measures set out in Scotland’s Circularity Gap report add up to a reduction of about 43% in our material and carbon footprints.

Other specific initiatives which I noted from the report include the following.  

Procurement: In Denmark, there is mandatory use of total cost of ownership in state procurement for specific product groups, so that the running costs, maintenance costs and disposal costs are all factored in. In this way, the focus will shift from the acquisition price to costs throughout a product’s lifecycle. The requirement will initially apply to 25 product groups with further groups to be added. In France, legislation requires that a percentage of goods acquired annually by central and local authorities must come from reuse or incorporate recycled materials. There is list of products to which this applies, including laptops, paper, desk furniture and textiles.

Construction: In Denmark, the government introduced a decreasing mandatory threshold limit  for climate footprints based on whole life-cycle analysis  – the emissions associated with all phases of the building’s life (material sourcing, construction, use and after-use) for new buildings in the Building Code. Luxembourg introduced an obligation to submit a digital material inventory for new construction.

Repair: The Austrian Repair Bonus introduced a voucher which provides a 50 % discount (with a limit) to consumers for repairs to electrical and electronic devices commonly used in households. In the first few months of the scheme, 63,400 vouchers had been cashed in 2,300 participating repair businesses.

Reuse: In Flanders, Belgium, in March 2022, about 80 organisations signed the Green Deal Anders Verpakt. Stakeholders are shifting the focus from increasing the collection and recycling of waste to prevention, omitting packaging, and the reuse of packaging.  The Green Deal focusses on a chain approach in which companies, governments, knowledge institutions and citizens work together towards common objectives.

The impact of implementing measures like these in Scotland would be significant. Scottish Environment LINK wants to see some real change on the ground in Scotland that will address our over-consumption. We need consumption targets and transition sector plans to drive a comprehensive approach, but we also can and need to get one with more and bigger concrete measures if we are going to make the difference that is so sorely needed.

By Phoebe Cochrane, sustainable economics officer

Photo: Copenhagen by Svend Nielsen on Unsplash 

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