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‘Don’t waste anything’

How doing business differently by valuing everything we use can save the environment and the economy as we overcome COVID-19 and the climate emergency

Iain Gulland | 30 Sep 20

‘Don’t waste. Don’t waste anything. Don’t waste electricity. Don’t waste food….Just treat the natural world as though it’s precious, which it is.’

Sir David Attenborough’s answer this week was clear and simple when he was asked what choice everyone should make today to save the planet.

The renowned naturalist’s response echoes the equally clear, simple message from Zero Waste Scotland – though it misses a crucial line. 

Because reducing waste will not only be key to ending the climate crisis. It is also key to creating the vital new jobs and businesses which we now need more than ever post-COVID as we ‘Build Back Better’. 

Sir David was interviewed by the BBC as he hit the headlines for reportedly being the fastest person to gain over a million followers on Instagram after he joined the social media channel to help galvanise global action.

His decision followed the broadcast of his latest documentary, Extinction: The Facts, shown last month (Sep 13).

In his parting words at the end of that programme, which featured the grimly familiar footage of burning forests and dying wildlife, he said we can all create a better future if we all make the ‘critical right decisions’ now.

He’s right. And he must hope that taking to the internet to extend his influence even further is one of those right choices for someone whose views carry as much weight as his do in changing people’s behaviour.

Our TV schedules now list programmes like Extinction: The Facts as if they’re just another form of entertainment, like some kind of dark, environmental version of a Tartan or Nordic noir.

This time there was an unexpected new villain in the form of COVID-19 – and warnings of more to come. 

But while COVID has brought widespread devastation it also brings - in a strange twist to the tale - by far the greatest hope yet that we can end the climate crisis.

No one wanted or expected this deadly pandemic, which has caused great hardship and taken so many precious lives and livelihoods around the world.

Yet as a result of lockdown we now know that we can make swift and radical changes to the way we live and work in order to overcome a global crisis.

Many staff at businesses here and around the world, including Zero Waste Scotland, are continuing to work from home permanently after finding that they don’t want or need to go into the office to do their jobs.

The daily commute and other staff travel is by far the greatest cause of the carbon emissions driving the climate crisis for service industry organisations like ours. Homeworking long-term is undoubtedly one of those ‘right decisions’ that Sir David is urging us to make now to reach the target of ending Scotland’s contribution to the climate crisis by 2045.

Obviously working from home is not feasible or desirable for everyone. But the future of work needs to be different for us all.

Sir David’s documentary included an interview with Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, the respected environmental economist at the London School of Economics, who called for ‘dramatic’ change to reduce the damage our wasteful mass production and consumption of resources is doing to biodiversity.

But amongst all the doom and gloom, viewers might have missed the meaning of Lord Stern’s next sentence, which was:

‘That’s the big prize’.

We have a crucial opportunity to turn all this waste into value, creating new, sustainable jobs and businesses at the heart of the green recovery and wellbeing economy which the Scottish Government is rightly striving to forge. 

To ‘Build Back Better’, we need to stop wasting our limited resources and make things last. That’s what the circular economy does, by keeping things in circulation as long as possible through reducing, reusing, repairing, remaking and finally recycling.

We are about to publish new research revealing that nearly one in ten jobs in Scotland is already in the circular economy. That’s significant, but to really make a difference we need to score ten out of ten.

Our forthcoming report also identifies a range of diverse and exciting new jobs to help do that by developing the national circular economy we need.

Insect farming is among the most interesting and beneficial with the power to turn Scotland’s food waste into valuable feed and also end our imports of crops like soy which devastate the world’s rainforests, an issue also highlighted by Sir David in the documentary.

The need for change is clear. 

The headline statistics which the documentary rammed home are stark: The rate of extinction is now 100 times faster than it would be under natural evolution. Thanks to the actions of one species, us, a million other species globally are at risk of being wiped out for good.

That grim figure was first announced by the UN in May 2019.

I launched Zero Waste Scotland’s corporate plan a few months later with an equally stark statistic:

Four fifths of Scotland’s carbon footprint comes from the vast amount of goods, materials and services which we produce, consume, and too often throw out after just one use. Around half of this stuff is imported from overseas, where - as the programme stressed - we are exporting the harm which our over-consumption wreaks.

Like Sir David, however, I remain optimistic that we can turn things around. We have to.

Thanks to the Scottish Government’s ambitious renewables policy Scotland now has the world’s third greenest grid. This can power the recovery we need, creating yet more sustainable jobs and reducing environmental damage overseas.

Tackling our overconsumption and switching from our wasteful, traditional linear economy (of ‘take, make and bin’) to a more circular one will not only reduce the destructive impact we are all having on our planet. It will also start the much-needed regeneration of our natural world, increasing biodiversity and building back resilience into our ecosystems, which ultimately support us all. 

We all need to make sure we look at every, single thing we buy and use as consumers and businesses and ask if it’s having a positive or negative impact on the planet.

That’s another of those ‘critical right decisions’ which Sir David reminds us to take immediately. 

As he said: ‘Don’t waste anything.’


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