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Making re-use the norm

Keeping materials in a high value form within our economy for as long as possible is a clear focus for Zero Waste Scotland.  There are huge potential economic, social and environmental benefits to be reaped from doing so.  The circulation and re-circulation of goods in a high quality state for re-use is a fundamental part in achieving this.

Iain Gulland - Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland | 2 Sep 14

Success will come through the establishment of the efficient supply and the creation of demand; which is to say that we must make it easier for people in Scotland to access services which support the circular use of products, such as re-use and repair services or product lease and take-back services, as well as changing behaviour in ways which make buying re-used goods the norm.   

Zero Waste Scotland’s existing programme of re-use and repair projects aims to drive the development of this societal and commercial step-change, with the help of a range of stakeholders.  Our approach will focus both on changing attitudes to reuse and repair as well as investing in the necessary infrastructure to accelerate the supply of quality re-use and repair services to the demand

Last week we brought over 140 of these stakeholders together to hear first-hand the breadth of the opportunities for re-use and repair within a circular economy here in Scotland, and to learn of the extent to which some of these opportunities are already being realised through existing activity in the re-use and repair sector.

At the event in Stirling we profiled the National Re-use Phone Line which helps householders across Scotland donate their bulky waste, like old sofa beds and redundant white goods to the third sector for re-use.  We want to work with local authorities to ensure that the use of this service is fully integrated locally alongside bulky uplift offerings so that we avoid sending goods suitable for re-use to landfill unnecessarily.  

The Revolve Re-use Quality Standard is our programme to help organisations improve standards and gain new customers. Our vision is to support the creation of a network of locally-rooted re-use outlets offering an excellent shopping experience and a range of high quality products at affordable prices.   With over 50 organisations now either fully Revolve accredited or working through the accreditation process we are now interested in working with all types of organisations involved in the resale of re-used goods, including the charity sector.       

In our vision for re-use, retailers also have a role to play.  We are beginning to engage with retailers to consider a number of initiatives which help us understand the most effective ways retailers can help consumers to re-circulate unwanted goods at the point of making new purchases.  

Seeing so many local authorities represented in the room led me to consider the role of local authorities in accelerating the shift to a circular economy, particularly in the case of re-use and repair. The role I’ve spoken a lot of in the past is around shaping public sector procurement to favour re-use and repair as well as the leasing of goods, thus creating a substantial new market for new businesses models with innovative services and products. 

But another role for local authorities could be around the encouragement of the re-use and repair culture locally. Yes through the greater promotion of initiatives such as the National Re-use Phone Line mentioned above, but also through the support and nurturing of new repair and re-use businesses and services.  This got me thinking about libraries.  At their most basic level, libraries are already hubs for circular economy activity: lending products, like books and CDs, and providing access to shared facilities like computers.  We all have a connection to libraries.  For me, they evoke memories of selecting audiobook tapes for the family Gulland to listen to on long journeys – the kids loved that!  I also remember regularly visiting to scour newspapers for job ads when I was unemployed… indeed that’s where my recycling career started with finding an ad for a waste management officer for East Lothian District Council. 

These connections are important, but the future of many libraries may be uncertain as they face the combined threats of the need to reduce costs and the shift to e-books and the internet.  So, I wonder, is there a role for them to reinvent themselves more broadly as hubs for the circular economy?  What better place could there be for providing opportunities to learn new skills such as sewing, or mobile phone and computer repair?   If the iFixit phenomenon really takes off, libraries could be a place to access manuals, tools and on-site support.  The Fab Lab concept, pioneered in Scotland by MAKlab could also integrate well with libraries, giving access to 3D fabrication tools and a shared space to network and encourage connections.  And there could easily be an expansion of the range of products which libraries lend, to cover a range of useful items which it makes sense to share, not own.   

Driving this paradigm shift in how we value long-term performance, underpinned by service-based business models, as opposed to just meeting narrowly defined short term needs could prompt a radical change in our behaviours and habits as consumers. Many of these new behaviours could however have their roots in current habits and practices and involve the use of recognised infrastructure and systems. Perhaps normalising the circular economy won’t be so much of a challenge as first perceived?

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