50 for the Future – Create a circular economy

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week’s 50 for the Future article, Mike Elm, Project Officer for the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital, explains why we need to transform our understanding of waste.


Number 40: Transform our understanding of waste and move to a true circular economy.


If you throw something away, do you ever stop and think where is ‘away’?

Scottish households throw away almost two and a half million tonnes a year and the largest portion of what is thrown away in Scotland, just under 50% in 2014, is sent to landfill.

Seeing what we throw away as waste is a mind-set that squanders resources and has impacts on Scotland’s environment. However, by changing our mind-set, we could generate billions of pounds, create jobs, cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce litter, all while helping to ensure nature is sustainably managed.

A circular economy, an economy where by design or intention nothing is wasted, would have benefits for Scotland’s wildlife and its people. To move towards a true circular economy requires a host of new business models and a new relationship with the things that we own and use. But the first principle of the circular economy, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is that it must preserve and enhance natural capital (for an explanation of natural capital read the 50 for the future blog by Scottish Wildlife Trust Chief Executive Jonny Hughes).

No End No Beginning. Copyright Julie Verlinden (full details below). 

The transformation of disposable waste from a liability to a resource can be very cost effective; we’ve seen this with the 5p carrier bag charge in Scotland which has reduced their use by 80%. With the success of the plastic bag charge a deposit return scheme for drinks containers is now being considered, which could help to increase the recycling rate and reduce the amount of litter in the natural environment. As well as being an eyesore in Scotland’s iconic landscape, litter can be a danger to wildlife on many levels: the RSPCA receives over 7,000 calls on this issue every year.

The ‘waste’ which a true circular economy would avoid goes far beyond just packaging. It extends to wasted space, time, energy and natural resources. For instance, on average in Europe, cars are unused over 90% of the time and 50% of the land in the average city is used by infrastructure such as car parks, petrol stations, roads and traffic signs. Improved ‘mobility’ through a range of options not dependent on private car ownership, such as public transport, cycling and walking networks, and car sharing schemes have the potential to free up land in urban areas for green spaces, with all the multiple benefits these provide for people and wildlife. Extra space within cities could also be used for new housing (combined with well designed green space of course) to help deflect pressure to develop on our green belts which are an important resource for town and city people.

There is growing international interest in the circular economy concept and how it relates to all sectors of the economy. In Scotland there is work underway on circular economy models from whisky, beer and fish production to lighting and the oil and gas industry. There are potentially significant financial benefits from circular economy models, for instance research by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) and the Green Alliance identified a £140 million profit opportunity simply through converting whisky by-product into feed for the fish-farming industry.

Research by Zero Waste Scotland has shown that the circular economy also has potential to help reduce Scotland’s carbon emissions with the report showing that by 2050 a circular economy scenario would create less than half the greenhouse gas emissions compared to a business as usual scenario. With climate change a key threat to Scotland’s wildlife, the move towards a circular economy is essential in reducing Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Scotland is showing leadership in this area, last year the government  ran a consultation as a step towards creating  the country’s first circular economy strategy. Scotland was also the first country to join the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Circular Economy 100’: an international network which brings together leading companies, emerging innovators and regions to accelerate the development of a circular economy.

The Scottish Forum on Natural Capital is also looking at the connection between the circular economy and natural capital concepts in discussions being led by Alliance Trust. This connection can be summed up by one of the points that came out of a recent roundtable convened by the project group: ‘whether the economy is circular or otherwise, it is underpinned by nature’.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Mike Elm is the Project Officer for the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital and a founding member of Scotland’s 2050 Climate Group.



Banner image © Timothy Takemoto. Image in text © Julie Verlinden from Plan C Community Day 2013 album. Used under Creative Commons licence.


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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Mike Elm explains the importance of moving to a circular economy. 

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