Climate change: Mass consumption has created a huge problem but also an opportunity – Iain Gulland

A mass of electrical equipment, including old television sets and computer monitors, awaits recycling (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA)A mass of electrical equipment, including old television sets and computer monitors, awaits recycling (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA)
A mass of electrical equipment, including old television sets and computer monitors, awaits recycling (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA)
We are living in a time of mass consumption.

Our desire for the latest model means that perfectly good products end up gathering dust – or worse, thrown in the bin.

This disposable culture is damaging our planet. Scotland has committed to being net-zero by 2045, the most ambitious target in the UK. To achieve this, we must reduce our carbon footprint now – before it’s too late.

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Around four-fifths of Scotland’s carbon footprint comes from the goods, materials and services which are produced, used and often thrown out after just one use. So, let’s consider some of the unused items you might have lying around the house.

Mass consumption is a huge problem when it comes to tech, with new models and upgrades advertised every year. But someone else could get years of use out of electronics you’re finished with and passing them on is easier than you might think.

The ongoing pandemic has shone a light on inequality and highlighted a real digital divide when it comes to education. We’ve all seen the reports of families struggling to support their children’s education at home because they don’t have access to enough computers. A second-hand tablet or a refurbished laptop could make an enormous difference to these young people’s lives, setting them up for success in the future.

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‘Secure data sanitisation’

From laptops to smartphones, our unwanted electrical products are still valuable. And there are lots of them about. Nearly 60 per cent of people in the UK say they have an electrical item at home that they don’t use anymore.

In Scotland, a third of us have an old smartphone tucked away, while one in five of us have a computer or laptop we don’t need. Those items could make a huge difference to young people who are struggling to keep their education going in unprecedented circumstances.

One concern that comes up often is what happens to our personal data when electrical items are donated for reuse. The Edinburgh Remakery is a perfect example of how people can donate their laptops and feel secure they’re not passing on their holiday snaps. They are a Revolve-certified store – a badge of quality for shops that sell used items.

They undertake a ‘secure data sanitisation’ of all donated electrical items, wiping all the data. This makes sure all data is destroyed and cannot be retrieved, meaning laptops, tablets, and other items can be safely reused. Revolve-certified second-hand stores reported reusing over 15,000 small electrical appliances last year alone, but we need to take this further.

Passing on tech that we no longer need also contributes to Scotland’s burgeoning circular economy. This is a more sustainable way of living. It’s all about retaining the value of all the materials we use and avoiding waste. Reuse is a big part of it. We already do it with reusable water bottles and carrier bags so why not with other items? In the fight against waste, every item counts.

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It isn’t just about saving the planet. There are huge economic opportunities, too. By changing the way we design, make, buy and dispose of electrical and electronic items we could reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by 15 per cent and add around £800 million to the economy.

A good global citizen

Each of us can play a part in helping Scotland and the rest of the world achieve its zero-waste ambitions.

With Scotland hosting the Cop26 climate change summit this year, there’s never been a better time to think global. Many of the countries that will be represented at the UN talks in Glasgow this year are already feeling the impact of climate change. If we want to truly end our contribution to the climate crisis, and be a good global citizen, we need to think beyond our borders and acknowledge our role in driving up emissions worldwide.

By reusing items that we already have, we reduce the need to extract, manufacture and transport new products. It’s easy to overlook the journey our possessions have been on before they reach us. These processes generate greenhouse gasses and produce a significant amount of carbon, fueling the climate crisis.

Electricals like mobile phones and laptops contain valuable raw materials, including a range of precious metals like gold, silver, platinum, and palladium. When your old phone sits in a cupboard gathering dust, all those materials are effectively going to waste.

Small changes with a big impact

What’s more, waste electrical and electronic equipment is really damaging to the environment when not disposed of correctly. If electrical items end up in landfill, hazardous substances can leak out and cause soil and water contamination – potentially harming wildlife and even human health.

There is no denying that reusing our items and wasting less can protect the environment and reduce our carbon footprint. The good news is that there is still time to change our approach, but we must do it now. We can all play our part to protect the planet, by making small changes that have a big impact.

Reusing existing items will also have a lasting positive social impact. By passing on unwanted goods to social enterprises, we can help them make a difference to local communities.

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So, next time you are upgrading your laptop or thinking of throwing away your old tablet, stop and think, could this help someone else’s future?

Iain Gulland is the chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland

To find out more about Zero Waste Scotland visit To find out more about Revolve and for details of your local store visit

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