Turn Greed to Green

03 Sep 2020

by James Curran MBE

Many governments are turning their attention to the post-Covid economy and there’s talk of ‘building back better’ and ‘green recovery’. Here, I’d like to share some of my past experiences and hopes for the future – where a system which is inherently greedy for raw materials and wasteful is replaced by one that is green

More than 10 years ago, my wife and I interrupted our careers and opened an eco-store and organic café in Glasgow city centre. We spent six months researching the products we would stock – to ensure we picked environmentally the best. We wouldn’t source beyond Europe due to freight miles, and the more local the better.

There were some great items: the triple certified coffee, roasted 3 miles away; a minimum-energy tumble drier, manufactured in Yorkshire; recycled plastic boards for DIY from Dumfries; and hemp clothing from Romania, with hugely reduced environmental footprint compared to cotton.

We stocked Spanish rugs, made from 100% post textile industry waste, and we also stocked Interface/Heuga carpet tiles made in Holland; and it is these carpet tiles which are my particular favourite (by the way, no endorsement is intended and I have absolutely no interest or connection with this company).

Just think for a moment – you want a fitted carpet in your living room. It might cost, with underlay/grippers/fitting, around £30 per square metre – so, for the room, perhaps £500. You might be concerned, along the way, about the environmental impacts of the materials, the wastage of offcuts during fitting, the roll-ends the supplier is left with and whether your carpet be recycled at the end of its life.

Anyway, you’ve got your new carpet and, next day, you spill a glass of red wine. The stain maybe covers 0.05% of the carpet area, but chances are you have to replace the whole thing. Pity – but also a really bad environmental impact.

Now, with a carpet tile, you can have a spare in the cupboard, or buy a few more, or shift them around so the stained tile is under the sideboard. No waste; no impact. What a brilliant eco-design feature. As the carpet wears in doorways or corridors, you can circulate the tiles to other parts – prolonging its lifetime.

The founder of Interface was the late, and inspirational, Ray Anderson. In 1994 he ‘dared to imagine’ and launched Mission Zero, intending to attain zero environmental impact for the company by 2020. Ten years ago, the carpet tiles we sold were all around 80% recycled content, and one line was zero-carbon. By the start of 2020, many of the Interface factories in Europe and the USA had achieved zero impact.

All company data are independently verified and, world-wide, over the past 25 years they have achieved 89% use of renewable energy, 60% of all input materials being recycled/bio-based, 89% reduction in use of water, 92% reduction in waste to landfill, and 96% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Every carpet tile is now zero-carbon.

All nylon fibre used in manufacture is now 100% recycled and the independent supplier has expanded production beyond Interface’s needs and markets more widely. This is an example of the ‘ripple effect’ where a pioneer company can influence others within the sector to innovate. Interface is also proud of ‘Net-Works’, now adopted fully as part of its commercial business model, in which coastal communities in Philippines and Indonesia gather abandoned fishing nets as supply material for recycling into carpet products.

The concept of industrial circularity has been taken further and, across 95% of the USA and 80% of Europe, Interface offers a carpet tile take-back service – promoting maximum reuse/recycling of materials. The company has now adopted the concept of the forest factory, putting more back into nature than is removed. It will become a restorative business. Yes – it’s all being done by a billion-dollar, global, highly competitive business.

But, unfortunately, they are an outlier. Overall, the UK recycling rate for carpets could be a lot better: currently around 55% goes to landfill, 30% is fed into waste-to-energy plants, and 15% is reused or recycled.

In Scotland, we must also ‘dare to imagine’. This really is the best opportunity to revolutionise our Scottish economy from one founded on a system which is greedy for raw materials, personalised profit and socialised risk; to one founded on green design, green manufacturing and green wellbeing.

Now I don’t want get too theoretical, but there are numerous studies showing that a circular economy doesn’t just eliminate waste. It also contributes hugely to reducing carbon emissions and to future-proofing and improving our way of life – by providing increased resilience through localised production and repair, by employing more local people and community-based enterprises, and by increasing traditional GDP.

You might ask – what should we do in Scotland? Well, here’s just one example; you’ll be able to think of many others. We should use the neglected section 82 in our own Climate Change Act which allows Scottish Ministers to specify the recycled content of items procured or constructed here. What a great opportunity for the enterprise agencies to determine what local recyclate streams could be available, what local businesses might be ready to use those recyclates, and then to create, by regulation, good stable home markets to promote innovative eco-designed products which, once established, could then be marketed elsewhere.

Scotland has signed up to the New Plastics Economy global commitment and yet recycles only about half of its plastic waste. So, maybe, we set an escalator of recycled plastic content of, say, outdoor furniture – which is a market of tens of millions. In our climate it is far more robust in any case, and we have some excellent local manufacturers.

It’s time to turn it around …

James Curran MBE an honorary fellow of Scottish Environment LINK and chair of the James Hutton Institute.

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