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What we do and why we do it

Iain Gulland - Director, Zero Waste Scotland | 1 Oct 13

A secondary school teacher I know is as passionate about teaching as I am about recycling. But he often gets frustrated that when meeting new people and answering what he does for a living, he gets the same old, rather facetious, discussion that follows about so-called ‘long holidays’, the need to bring back the ‘tawse’, and what do teachers throw at kids now that blackboard dusters are no more.

I can see why he would be a little fed-up. So, he explained to me, he often introduces himself now as someone in the ‘knowledge business’. Once people understand he doesn’t mean working in IT, there typically follows a more serious, interesting conversation on the importance of the development of young people as individuals, and getting the balance right between traditional schooling and nurturing of talents, with giving students the space to create their own futures.

He isn’t trying to dupe anyone just move the conversation about teaching to start from a different point. He is clearly proud of what he does and it’s a much more engaging chat when people understand and appreciate the core purpose of his profession and its objectives, than some Grange Hill stereotype of classroom survival. He assured me he has never even seen a jacket with elbow patches let alone worn one.

I’ve used his tactic myself. Saying ‘I’m in the recycling business’ usually leads to a thorough Q&A from people which includes why can’t they recycle plastic X or product Y and isn’t there just too much packaging, and let me tell you about the bins…  My latest response is to say that I’m in the ‘jobs business’, after all that’s really what this is all about for me. Again, this is not playing semantics or obfuscation, it’s about mindset and seeing the bigger picture. It has always been so: right from my days working in the community sector where the real value of the various community recycling projects was not solely to ’save the planet’ (as many would have pigeon-holed us) but to create local jobs and provide training opportunities, often for people excluded or distant from the mainstream labour market.

Now at Zero Waste Scotland, I still firmly believe that it’s the creation of jobs that will have the greatest economic and social impact of what is seen as our ‘environmental work’. The fact that around three quarters of our household recycling is recycled outside of Scotland is a waste in itself – exporting work to someone else’s economy. We need to shape our material supply and infrastructure to increase, develop and sustain local employment opportunities here in Scotland. Although we might want to measure our success through the achievements of recycling rate targets, in terms of lasting impact, we might want to see our targets differently in terms of the whole value of what achieving high recycling rates will bring. This could mean reaching for a target of securing 70% of what we estimate could be 12,000 new jobs generated from a more home grown reprocessing sector.   

My ‘job business’ intro kick-starts the recycling conversation from a different place and makes people think differently around their weekly ‘chore’ of putting out their bottles, paper and tins. It mirrors the subtle but strategic renaming of our conference this week. Dropping the word ‘waste’ from the title is not to dupe people into thinking we are something we aren’t but to focus in on and  re-enforce the need to continue the conversation that has started: seeing what was once dismissed as  ‘rubbish’ from a completely different place. Resources are valuable to the Scottish economy at every level. We saw from last week’s IPCC report conclusion that climate change is man-made. It will take man-made solutions to find our way back, and like all endeavours it must start with employment – employing ideas, innovation, and most importantly, people.

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