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Circular economy strategy, then what? Four lessons from Scotland

Circular economy strategy, then what? Four lessons from Scotland
This article was originally published on Apolitical

In mid-June of 2023, the Scottish Parliament introduced the Circular Economy Bill,  new legislation to encourage waste reduction, reuse and recycling. The bill builds on the country's first Circular Economy Strategy Making Things Last and addresses some of its shortcomings—seven years after its launch. Most importantly, the new document admits that Scotland’s circular economy roadmap will never be done and dusted. Continually updating, improving and extending the transition plan based on new research and public input will be essential. In this article, we look at what other nations can learn from Scotland’s story.

Give the authorities the power to enforce change

Scotland is not new to the circular economy concept. As one of Europe’s industrial powerhouses, Scotland formally recognised the need to make long-lasting goods that are fit for upgrade and repair as early as 2016. It’s also pledged to cap raw material consumption and get smarter at recycling. 

However, some of the key actors in the country’s circular transition haven’t yet wielded the powers necessary to enforce much-needed policies. The Circular Economy Bill has finally granted them such capabilities. For example, Scottish ministers will now be able to ban the landfilling of unsold consumer goods and place charges on single-use items, such as coffee cups. Most importantly, the legislation obliges Scottish ministers to publish or refresh a circular economy strategy every five years and ensure constant progress tracking—a first-of-its-kind measure in Scotland. 

‘The Circular Economy Bill will give local Councils and the Scottish Government the powers they need to transform our economy and tackle throwaway culture,’ proclaimed Scottish Circular Economy Minister Lorna Slater.

Ask scientists 

The bill was drafted with the assistance of numerous non-profit and research organisations. For example, the Circularity Gap Report Scotland, published in 2022, provided a first overview of the country’s circularity rate. The report was commissioned by Zero Waste Scotland, a non-profit that consulted the Scottish Parliament on the Circular Economy Bill, and were developed by Netherlands-based impact organisation Circle Economy.

According to the Circularity Gap Report, in 2022—six years after the launch of the first Circular Economy Strategy—Scotland’s Circularity Gap was still disappointingly wide. The researchers found its economy to be just 1.3% circular, meaning it almost completely relied on new, or virgin, materials. In comparison, the United Kingdom was later measured to be 7.5% circular, while Northern Ireland scored 7.9% on the same metric.

Setting a baseline to measure progress from

So, why is Scotland’s circularity so low, despite all of its efforts? First of all, we simply don’t know how circular the country was in 2016—Scotland might well have made tremendous progress since then. Or it might have not—since there was no comprehensive baseline from which to start tracking. 

What’s more, the Making Things Last roadmap adopted mainly tonnage-based targets and indicators to estimate progress: for example, the weight of avoided waste or waste prepared for recycling and reuse. Nevertheless, the document admitted that focus on weight does not provide a complete understanding of environmental and economic impacts, and rightly so. As legal status research by Zero Waste Scotland points out, ‘the Circularity Gap considers both the reuse and recycling of materials as well as the import and export of materials,’ referring to the global Circularity Gap Report. 

‘The Circularity Gap Report doesn’t just measure Scotland’s current rate of circularity, providing a quantifiable baseline from which we can measure change—it also identifies bold interventions that will advance the country’s circular efforts,’ said Zero Waste Scotland CEO Iain Gulland in a foreword to the Circularity Gap Report Scotland.

‍Setting a baseline to measure progress from
Photo by Geo Chierchia on Unsplash

Another reason for Scotland’s low circularity is overconsumption. In 2022, The country consumed 21.7 tonnes of materials per person per year, far surpassing the global average of around 12 tonnes. A circular economy anchored in frugality and self-sufficiency is challenging to build with such a rampant pace of consumption: as long as consumption is so high, it’ll be very difficult to recycle and reuse materials at the same rate.

Define priority areas—then redefine

Clearly, the Scottish Government approached the 2023 Circular Economy Bill better prepared and with the latest scientific findings in mind. As such, the policy memorandum accompanying the bill states that the priority sectors for intervention should be shaped and informed by research at the time of the strategy’s production.

‘For example, the recently published Circularity Gap Report for Scotland identifies sectors and systems such as the built environment, food and manufacturing as particular priorities,’ elaborates the memorandum. 

The Circular Economy Bill was also informed by consultations with the Scottish communities, businesses, and the public sector. More than 1600 survey responses were collected and analysed. This provided policymakers with insights into which policy proposals are publicly supported.  

Bridging Scotland’s Circularity Gap will also require thinking beyond obvious solutions—such as those centred on recycling. For instance, a circular built environment doesn’t just mean recycling demolition waste, but also rethinking the need for new buildings and choosing more regenerative, sustainable materials. Similarly, a circular food system involves more than just cutting food waste—it’ll involve swapping meat for more plant-based options and favouring organic products.  

It is equally important to consider impacts outside Scottish borders. The Making Things Last strategy sets targets related to domestic material management, but, like other wealthy nations, Scotland heavily relies on imports. The circularity of imported goods and materials is hard to regulate. However, shifting to mainly domestic production of high-impact materials such as sand, clay, industrial machinery, and meat would yield greater control over production processes, making them more circular. 

In 2016, Scotland became one of the pioneers in European circular economy road mapping. Today, it runs both far ahead and far behind other nations. Yes, Scotland is less circular than its European neighbours—but it has just adopted one of the most well-informed and science-based policy documents to fuel its circular transition.

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