How Scotland is repurposing its waste into effective resources

From using pot ale to feed fish, to algae in 3D printers: the circular economy proves waste is worth more than we think

Most recently, algae has been used for 3D printing and solar panels, and creates the only natural blue food pigment.
Most recently, algae has been used for 3D printing and solar panels, and creates the only natural blue food pigment.

With predictions that our seas will contain more plastic than fish by 2050 and increasing temperatures that are predicted to soar above 30C will threaten our crops, now is the time to find innovative solutions to end our throwaway culture.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity based on circular economy principles, there are more than 150 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean today, a worrying figure that is set to increase to 1 tonne for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025.

However, Scotland is doing much to tackle that by introducing a 5p levy on plastic bags and a deposit and return scheme for drinks containers, banning plastic cotton buds and pledging to phase out non-recyclable plastics by 2030, in line with the European Union.

Head of Circular Economy at Zero Waste Scotland Louise McGregor says: “We cannot keep consuming at the same rate that we are at the moment, where we are taking materials, making them into products and then throwing those products into the ground.

“The circular economy is about preserving precious resources and being able to use them more effectively, so there is a real environmental reason for doing it.

“One of the encouraging things about the circular economy is that it also presents solutions to business that suggest it is not about making less stuff, but being more effective about what we do make.

“It offers different models to businesses that can be attractive to companies, as it creates a different customer relationship, more resilience and opens up new markets and businesses, therefore increasing profitability.”

It is a solution to help the environment while boosting the economy.

Scotland will host the third annual Circular Economy Hotspot, an international trade mission that will showcase some of the country’s most inventive companies from 30 October to 1 November.

It is an appropriate location as, according to McGregor, the country is recognised as the leading circular economy having received the award for Circular Economy Nations and Regions in the Circulars Awards at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year.

It is also a topic that is largely supported by the Scottish Government.

In 2015, the government launched its first circular economy strategy, Making Things Last, which identified the bioeconomy as a key area for action.

As the country’s waste and by-products have the potential to unlock a further £800 million towards the Scottish economy, the bioeconomy is worth encouraging.

“It is a way to describe parts of the economy that use renewable bioecological resources that come from land, water, or air,” says McGregor, who has a Masters of

Science degree in environmental diagnostics.

“So things like crops, forests, fish, animals and even micro organisms would be within that.

“It thinks about the conversion of those into value-added products, so the conversion of those into foods for human and animal consumption, into bio-based products and into bioenergy even.

“It is all the elements that involve these biodegradable and biorenewable resources.”

She points to the whisky industry as a leading example. The pot ale that is produced as a by-product during the distilling process can be fermented and used to make biobutanol, which can be used in place of diesel – something that Scottish firm Celtic Renewables are looking to exploit at their forthcoming plant at Grangemouth.

Draff, or spent barley and oat grains which are protein and fibre-rich, is sold as a cattle feed, as is pot ale, the residue from the distilling process found in the still.

Ardnamurchan Distillery, on the shores of Loch Sunart on Scotland’s west coast, is in one of the most remote parts on the mainland and opened in 2014.

It produces nine litres of pot ale for each litre of spirit and so the distillery evaporates it into a pot ale syrup which can be used for feeding livestock.

When it is not carrying out the process, surplus energy is used by Oban-based photobioreactor manufacturer Xanthella to grow microalgae as part of the company’s ENBIO project.

They received more than half a million pounds through Zero Waste Scotland’s Circular Economy Investment Fund, which is supported by the European Regional Development Fund. The project will install 16 1,000-litre photobioreactors on Ardnamurchan Estate to produce light and grow microalgae.

Xanthella’s founder and chief executive Dr Douglas McKenzie says: “The microalgae can be used for a whole lot of different purposes.

“In this circular economy project, we are mostly looking to displace some of the microalgae that we import into the UK, where if you go into health food shops and your local supermarkets, you’ll find microalgae there.

“They are all imported and they are actually quite high value.

“If you sit and work back how much that is actually costing per kilogram, you realise it ranges from about £50 to £200 per kilogram.”

Most recently, algae has been used for 3D printing and solar panels, and creates the only natural blue food pigment. Its hefty price tag, however, is also due to demand from superfood and health product manufacturers as well as fish farmers.

McKenzie, who established the company in 2009, says: “Microalgae can be a great source of omega 3 and that is the big health benefit of salmon.

“At the moment all the omega 3 is being imported and turned into feed for salmon, mostly from anchovies and other oily fish from Peru.

“We are grinding up fish to feed to fish and the industry would like to move to a point where it can use other sources.”

Microalgae require light, carbon dioxide, nutrients and water to thrive, and all of these can come from distilleries, says McKenzie.

The high number of distilleries adds to Scotland’s success in being a leader for the bioeconomy, but Scotland is as renowned for its food produce as much as its whisky.

With an abundance of root vegetables that are highly accessible, Burntisland-based CelluComp has also been helping to put Scotland on the circular economy map. The company was founded by scientists Dr David Hepworth and Dr Eric Whale who sought a rival to carbon fibre.

They used carrots, sugar and beet to create an eco-friendly take on chemical additives, which is twice as strong.

Curran, the Gaelic word for carrot, is an innovative reinforcing material that can be added to prints, cosmetics, concrete and even aerospace parts.

The team are now working in-house and with partners in universities for solutions in concrete and drilling fluids and hope to propel the material into the pharmaceutical industry.

Why does Scotland succeed in establishing creative companies such as these? McGregor says it all comes down to assets and collaboration.

She says: “We have quite a big focus on industrial biotechnology which is really all about taking biological resources and getting value from them.

“We commissioned a report which was looking at the potential for bio-refining in Scotland. That report identified 27 million tonnes of waste and by-products that could have a more beneficial end use.

“I think we have a lot of innovative people here in Scotland. We have a strong academic base and we have recognised that need for innovation.”

That base is set to be exhibited at Zero Waste’s Circular Economy Hotspot, a major international event which is expected to bring more than 400 businesses and academics, from around the world to Glasgow in November.

McGregor adds: “It’s an opportunity for Scotland to showcase what we are doing and some of the companies that are doing all these interesting things.”

Circular Economy Hotspot Scotland 2018

In Glasgow, 30 October to 1 November.

Delivered by Zero Waste Scotland.

Visits to pioneering Scottish businesses.

Workshops and talks led by experts in circular economy policy and innovation.

Unique networking opportunities for delegates.

For more information or to register to attend, visit

IBioIC linking industry with academics

The Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) is positioning Scotland as a key player in the industrial biotechnology sector.

It was established in 2014 with a grant of £10 million from the Scottish Funding Council, which it has leveraged into £50m of activity during the first phase of funding.

Hosted at Strathclyde University, it links academia and industry across a range of markets, looking at innovative ways to produce materials and chemicals without using fossil fuels.

The centre is sponsoring the bioeconomy theme at this year’s Circular Economy Hotspot where it will showcase three different companies in the sector:

- Celtic Renewables became a well-known name across Scotland year when it launched the world’s first car to run on whisky by-products.

The spin-out from Edinburgh Napier University produced biobutanol from draff and pot ale, residue from the process of manufacturing whisky and is now building a two-acre plant at Grangemouth to develop the fuel.

- Pennotec, developed in North Wales, runs a project called iCRAB, which involves the extraction of chitin from seafood shells to combat arthritis and encourage the flocculation process in water treatment.

- Ingenza, a spin-out of Edinburgh University, is a synthetic biology company which applies its own technology in the fine chemical, food and pharmaceutical industries and manipulates genes in microbes to make bugs do more of what they want them to do and less of what they don’t.

Roger Kilburn, right, chief executive of the IBioIC, says: “We have a highly skilled workforce within both academia and research capabilities.

“We create 27 million tonnes of bioresources every year, from agricultural residuals, by-products and industrial wastes.

“We have two thirds of the UK’s forestries in Scotland, so in terms of biomass, forestry is a potential source for us.

He adds: “It never ceases to amaze me just how wide and varied our opportunities are here.”

For more information, click here