Building a circular economy in Scotland

In a new column for Green World, co-leader of the Scottish Greens Lorna Slater highlights the need to move away from 'taking and disposing', and how the Scottish Government is making this shift.

Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie
Lorna Slater

Growing up we all heard about the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. These are the bedrock of the Green movement and the circular economy that we need to build. 

Far too much of our economy focuses on taking and disposing, which has a devastating effect on our planet. Far too many materials and objects go to landfill without even being used once, which is costly to people and the planet. 

We are working to change this by increasing re-use and sharing, eliminating waste, and ensuring that things are built to last. This is what’s known as the circular economy, which is at the heart of our vision for a fairer, greener Scotland. 

Last August I was appointed as Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity. It is the first time that any Scottish Minister had ever had the circular economy in their brief, so a lot of the work I am doing is totally new territory for Scotland.

Last week I visited Fresh Start, an Edinburgh based social enterprise that works to ensure that batches of unsold or unused goods go to households that need them. This approach isn’t just great for our communities, but also for our environment. 

For many, living sustainably can seem daunting, which is why we are working with businesses and groups like Fresh Start to make it as easy and accessible as possible. There are steps that we can all take and individual positive changes that can make a difference to us and the people around us. 

But a commitment to waste reduction doesn't just need us to make better consumer choices, it also needs action from businesses and governments.

Before being appointed as a government minister, I used to have a regular slot at First Minister’s Questions. In one of my first questions, I raised the national scandal of companies across Scotland destroying thousands of perfectly good and usable items every day. This followed investigations that found computer equipment, books and face masks were among the items being destroyed. 

This is such a waste. It is ridiculous that so many good products are being discarded and ending up in landfill or incineration rather than being reused or repurposed. 

Last week I was proud to announce new plans to tackle this. As part of a Circular Economy Bill that I will be taking through Parliament, we will aim to ban the destruction of unsold goods and make sure they make it into the hands of those that need them.

This is something all countries could be doing. Some already are. In 2020, Germany was the first European country to introduce blocks on the destruction of returns and excess goods. Likewise, since then, France has also introduced curbs on companies destroying clothes, cosmetics, hygiene products and electrical items. 

This is just one part of the vital changes that we are introducing to reduce waste and create greener streets and communities. 

In my role, I am also introducing a ban on many of the worst single-use plastics. The ban, which will come into force in June, will stop the use of cups made from polystyrene and other plastic items that litter our streets and seas.

I am also establishing a world-leading bottle and can deposit return scheme, which will be introduced next year. I am overseeing the biggest investment in recycling for a generation, with more than £13 million going to our local authorities to increase the quality and quantity of recycling. 

The timing could not be more urgent. Climate justice is social justice. Many of the most marginalised and underrepresented groups are the ones who are most adversely affected by pollution and climate change. 

They are also the people that are being hit hardest by the cost of living crisis that has been inflicted by Westminster. Skyrocketing energy prices, increased food costs, austerity, and a disastrous Tory Brexit have combined to create a perfect storm that is having a devastating impact on our communities.

That is why we are focused on changes that are good for people and the planet while also helping household budgets. That principle is right at the heart of the circular economy that we are building.

None of these changes would be possible if we didn’t have the power to do them. Last month marked six months since we signed the cooperation agreement between the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Government. 

The scale and ambition of the changes we are delivering are the difference between opposition and government. They are the difference between calling for change and being able to directly implement it.

The Three Rs may be easy for us to remember, but they can be hard to put into practice. That is why, with Greens in government, we are doing everything we can to make it easier. By working together, we can build the fairer, greener future that we all want to see.