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Accelerating progress on the circular economy is vital to avert the climate crisis

As climate change becomes a climate emergency, Zero Waste Scotland chief executive Iain Gulland describes how we can help to avert the crisis by accelerating progress on the circular economy from local to national and global levels

Iain Gulland | 7 Jun 19


This week while I attended events in Helsinki as part of the World Circular Economy Forum 2019, people around the globe were taking collective action to reduce air pollution for World Environment Day.

The theme of the latest annual United Nations event might have seemed a distant problem in Helsinki, consistently recognised as one of the least polluted capital cities on earth. But with deadly levels of smog causing millions of premature deaths each year as well as driving up climate change, the impact of pollution on the health of people and the planet is increasingly clear. And not just to all of those attending the WCEF2019 events, but to growing numbers of people around the globe from all backgrounds, cultures and societies, both near and far. Just over the border in Sweden, the teenage activist Greta Thunberg began her now-famous school strikes which have inspired countless schoolchildren worldwide to follow suit and demand greater action on global warming.

Indeed, we were all challenged by a delegation of school children at the WCEF2019 opening ceremony to speed up action on the circular economy - not just for the climate but also to stop biodiversity loss and reduce consumption of virgin resources. The sense of emergency was evident to all and when you consider the immediate impact of air pollution on the health of humankind the need for urgent action is overwhelming. 

The term ‘circular economy’ is becoming part of the global lexicon, and as protests and policy changes show, people understand the urgent need for the actions which it encompasses – to make the best possible use of our precious, limited resources to create a sustainable global community. What some might have thought was a global grassroots movement is now having an impact at the highest levels. This momentum offers us all a real and exciting opportunity to imagine a new paradigm which provides the answers, information and support which consumers, business and the public sector are crying out for.

I was invited to speak in Helsinki as chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland to give an insight into how our organisation is pioneering the circular economy at home and abroad. It is now two and a half years since Scotland won international recognition as a circular economy forerunner at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The Circulars Award emphasised the impact of working in partnership with other agencies within Scotland to influence and lead the Scottish Government’s policy driving the transition from a traditional, linear ‘make, use and bin’ economy to the circular approach of keeping materials in use for as long as possible.

The accolade has helped raise awareness of what we have done – and how we and others can build on that progress to meet the aims set out by the World Circular Economy Forum to scale up the innovative work we have jointly identified and pioneered across countries and continents.

We have achieved a great deal in a short time, and I am proud of that. It has not been an easy task however – and we have much more to do. But we are keen to share our story so far as well as learn from others on their journey. At the WCEF2019 in Helsinki we launched Zero Waste Scotland’s new Circular Economy Accelerator. The accelerator is not a complex machine but a simple new website showcasing our activities to date including the variety of Scottish firms which we have supported as they develop wide-ranging and ground-breaking ways of becoming circular.

It will provide a platform for our work to create a truly circular society where reusing, repairing and remaking - and moving from selling goods as a product to providing them as a service - become the norm.

One of the key lessons which we have learned over the past three years since our Circular Economy Investment Fund was established is this: If we want businesses and public sector bodies to become circular we don’t just need to provide the multi-million-pound financial support which the fund offers. We also need to explain clearly what a circular economy is, what it can look like and how it can help firms and the public sector save money and generate new clients, meeting their own and their customers’ desire to help combat climate change.

The accelerator highlights around half a dozen case studies from some of the 200 or so SMEs we have been working with (which we plan to feature more of in future) to illustrate to managers, owners and entrepreneurs what other firms have already done with our help and advice, and how they could benefit from a circular approach too.

Another valuable lesson is that the circular approach has no universal form – it can take a different shape in virtually every business, which makes the one-to-one support which we provide vital to help identify both what each firm can do and how they can do it.

Some of the innovative start-ups across Scotland who have come up with fantastic ideas also need more general help which we provide too on how to explain those concepts, set up as a business, apply for grants and attract investment to help them get off the ground and reach customers.

Connecting people and firms who need circular solutions with those who can develop products and services to supply that growing demand is a key part of what we do. Adopting and adapting successful approaches from around the world has played a significant role in helping us to do that. About four years ago a chat with Guido Braam, then of Netherlands-based Circle Economy, led us to try a different way to engage with businesses. As well as continuing with a sector-led approach, we also began to focus on places after learning how successful that method had been with Dutch companies in and around Amsterdam. We now have a network of circular cities and regions as well as ‘zero waste’ towns across Scotland, from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Tayside and the Isle of Bute, where we work with chambers of commerce to reach all kinds of firms. In this way we are changing mindsets and behaviour at a regional and citywide level as we drive forward work to establish a circular economy nation.

The financial benefits to business of becoming more sustainable are great. The individual opportunities are instrumental in our one-to-one-engagement while our cities and regions activity has identified more strategic opportunities for investment and commercial gain. At our successful Circular Economy Hotspot in Glasgow last autumn, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon referred to analysis from work in just two key regions of Scotland which estimated a £1bn boom in the circular economy.

Our successes to date include the establishment of the Scottish Institute for Remanufacture - a centre of excellence based at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow bringing together academics and businesses to support inventive ways to increase levels of reuse, repair and remaking in manufacturing operations.

As a relatively small nation, Scotland is perhaps more aware than most of the need to collaborate to drive change. The thousands of delegates at the World Circular Economy Forum from so many different countries, and all continents of the globe, showed that we are far from alone, or lacking in collaborators. The transition to a circular economy is already truly global. The fresh air of Helsinki has indeed led to some fresh thinking on what we need to do collectively to scale up. But as the pupils behind the school strike protests remind us, there is no time to waste. We are facing a climate emergency, so we need to turn our thoughts and strategies into action - and fast.


The Resource Efficient Circular Economy Accelerator Programme Fund is administered by Zero Waste Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Government. It is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

The Scottish Government is the Managing Authority for the European Structural Funds 2014-20 Programme. For further information visit the or follow @scotgovESIF

More information on all Zero Waste Scotland’s programmes can be found at www.zerowastescotland.org.uk. You can also keep up to date with the latest from Zero Waste Scotland though via our social media channels - Twitter | Facebook | Google PlusLinkedIn

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