Circular economy: Artists' creativity and invention can help rid Scotland of its waste problem and build a sustainable future – Mella Shaw

The climate emergency may have been pushed down the agenda for the time being but it’s far from old news.

Waste materials from whisky and gin distillation have been turned into contemporary furniture by Draff Studio, based in Dundee (Picture: Gavin Craigie)

It’s over 100 days since the COP26 summit in Glasgow and, as we reel from further global upheaval, the question of what kind of planet we want to live on remains.

While Scotland’s target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2045 is a start, it is not ambitious enough for many. Practical steps aside, there is one vital thing missing.

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That’s a mindset change around the “take-make-dispose” way of living. Known as the linear economy, it describes how we take resources from the earth, make new things, use them up, then dispose of them.

It is extremely inefficient and treats natural resources as infinite, which they are not. This approach is unsustainable and has a devastating effect on the environment, from climate change to ocean plastics, mineral depletion and soil pollution, to name just a few.

The circular economy is a proposed alternative whereby we design out waste and pollution, keep materials in use for as long as possible, reuse and reclaim resources, and regenerate rather than deplete our natural environment.

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It requires a completely new way of designing, whereby a product’s entire life-cycle is considered from the outset. For this we can look to the efficiency of the natural world where everything feeds into something else.

Work by jeweller Stefanie Cheong features in an exhibition, called REsolve: a Creative Approach to the Circular Economy, at Kirkcaldy Galleries

For those unfamiliar with the circular economy, it can be simplified into four main underlying principles:

One, transforming waste to function. Through careful design, there is no waste. Everything is designed to feed into something else, to get the maximum possible value from each component material.

Two, design for disassembly. This facilitates the repair of products and ultimately allows raw materials to be fully recovered, redesigned and reused as new products.

Three, powered by renewable energy. In the circular economy, all energy should be generated from renewable sources: solar, wind and hydro technology.

Four, sharing and repairing; questioning our current desire to own things personally and treating products, skills, space and resources as assets that can be rented or shared. It encourages and enables repairing, upcycling and make-do-and-mend culture by removing in-built obsolescence.

Transitions away from the current linear economy require changing how we think about and use resources on a personal, societal and global scale. We must challenge old assumptions and become inventive about how things are made, out of what, for what function, by whom, and for how long will they be used.

The exciting thing to realise is that the circular economy is not just better for the planet but the economy too. As by-products are no longer seen as “waste” but as valuable resources that can be repurposed, and technologies increase the efficiency of renewable energy, it will become easier to embrace this way of living.

The good news is that here in Scotland this change in thinking is already taking place, not just in boardrooms but inside creative spaces, studios and workshops.

Artists, designers and makers can aid the transition away from a linear economy towards a more circular one because they are already thinking in this more sustainable way. We're accustomed to using resources sparingly and imaginatively. And we understand materials, their potential and their limitations.

In their progressive programming, arts organisation Fife Contemporary acknowledges the role of designers, artists and makers. As part of a new exhibition, called REsolve: a Creative Approach to the Circular Economy, at Kirkcaldy Galleries, I have selected a range of practitioners who are actively engaged in the creative problem-solving needed to build a sustainable future which respects the world’s finite resources and spreads economic wealth fairly.

Many of these practitioners are working in Scotland today.

Waste materials from whisky and gin distillation have been transformed into contemporary furniture pieces by Draff Studio, based in Dundee. The often-discarded wool of black cheviot sheep has been given a new lease of life by weaver and knitwear designer Janet Hughes. Jeweller Stefanie Cheong has looked closer to home to find semi-precious stones which can be interchangeably inserted into her ingenious rings.

Glasgow-based artist Deirdre Nelson has taken the Repair Manifesto as her inspiration and Edinburgh’s Sarah Calmus has worked with renewable energy datasets to create a film work that visually represents Scotland’s relationship with renewables.

The brief for REsolve has been purposefully broad as practitioners bring new perspectives on what the circular economy means to them.

Dunblane-based Paul Eames’ sculpture Round and Round takes its inspiration from the first powered flight in Scotland made by the Barnwell Brothers operating out of their workshop in Causewayhead, Stirling.

They used pram wheels on that first plane and, for Paul, the combination of invention, resourcefulness and adventure resonates with those human qualities that continue to propel us through new developments. Skills that also help us combat adversity in this time of climate crisis.

This exhibition is a small step to changing our understanding about the circular economy. For those that can’t make it to see the exhibition in person, there’s an online programme of resources on the Fife Contemporary website sharing insights and conversations I have had with the artists in the build-up to the show.

There’s also a wealth of resources and links shared for those who want to discover more about the circular economy. With that in mind I urge you, after reading this article, to commit to one small action that supports the circular economy.

It could be as simple as repairing that favourite pair of jeans, sharing your lawn mower with your neighbours, or deciding to build a solar panel system for your home.

Every small action has an impact and together we will build a sustainable future whilst embracing the creativity and ingenuity required to enjoy a greener Scotland.

Artist Mella Shaw is curator of the exhibition REsolve: A creative approach to the Circular Economy at Kirkcaldy Galleries until May 8. Visit www.fcac.co.uk to learn more.

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