How SNP ministers could use 30-year-old law to transform Scotland into ‘circular economy’ – James Mackenzie

Scotland’s Circular Economy Bill is so lacking in ambition that it’s not worthy of the name, writes James Mackenzie.

Not everything can be recycled like these glass bottles and manufacturers need to do more (Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire)
Not everything can be recycled like these glass bottles and manufacturers need to do more (Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire)

It should be a great moment for Scotland to make ambitious moves towards a circular economy. People are increasingly concerned about plastics in our seas, runaway climate breakdown, and the degradation of our land and seas. Demands for change are everywhere.

A Scottish circular economy would see new industries springing up to help us use less, reuse more and recycle everything else when necessary. Waste would start to be designed out of our supply chains. Companies would have real incentives to reduce reliance on environmentally problematic raw materials. Right now, those irresponsible businesses who make us all pay for their effects on our environment have a competitive advantage over those businesses that already do the right thing.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

A long-awaited next step is coming in 2021 in the form of a Scottish deposit-return system on cans and bottles (declaration of interest: I have campaigned for this since 2015). Since that was announced in 2017, the environmental movement has been pressing for more measures of this sort which allow like-for-like recycling and, in this case, also lay the groundwork for a German-style refillable sector.

Read More

Read More
Circular economy extracts maximum value – Mayan Grace

So it should be good news that the Scottish Government is consulting on what is called a Circular Economy Bill, but sadly the proposed legislation is so lacking in ambition that it’s really not worth the name.

The proposals include the charges for coffee cups already agreed with the Green MSPs as part of last year’s budget deal, but nothing to start the kind of reusable cup system getting off the ground in Germany.

There’s a section about making businesses report on unsold stock and banning the disposal of unsold clothing. There are some new duties on local authorities around recycling. The carrier bag charge, 5p since 2014, will now go up to 10p – just as other countries are banning plastic bags altogether.

Blaming the public for litter

It also includes one complete distraction. If you litter from a vehicle they’ll make it easier to fine you, which is does precisely nothing to deliver a circular economy. We have had 40 years of “enforce and educate”, essentially blaming the public for the failures of business and governments. That’s not to excuse littering, whether from a car or not, but a very remote possibility of a fine will generally just be ignored.

This strand of thinking can be traced back to the founding of Keep America Beautiful in the early 1950s, when a number of big producers came together to resist measures which would actually reduce litter, such as deposit-return systems.

As the public started to blame producers for the rise in litter, these organisations were born to turn the tables – producer-funded bodies designed to blame the public. This cynical approach has been effective in PR terms, but of course does nothing to change the way our economy operates, exactly as planned.

More broadly, this entire consultation embodies at best 1990s thinking about the waste hierarchy. The Scottish Government will continue to watch passively as materials and products tumble onto the market, irrespective of whether they’re needed at all, whether they can be reused, or even whether they can be recycled.

Surprisingly wide-ranging powers

So what should ministers have proposed? What, even now, could come back as better legislation?

The right place to start is with what products get sold in the first place, what materials they use, and how they’re packaged. It does not make sense to continue to let “anti-circular” materials and products onto the market and hope to pick up the pieces afterwards.

Scottish ministers already have surprisingly wide-ranging powers here. Just look at a pair of small but worthwhile changes already adopted: bans on plastic-stemmed cotton buds and on microbeads in cosmetics. In both cases, they used a piece of legislation from almost 30 years ago which allows them to “prohibit or restrict” the use of “injurious substances or articles”.

This same power could be used more widely, given the substantial body of evidence about environmental degradation and climate change. There are value judgements to be made here, just as there were with cotton buds and microbeads, but there’s also a lot of science to rely upon.

Materials which cannot be reused or recycled should be banned or phased out – unless they are essential and there is currently no alternative and, even there, incentives for alternatives can help drive innovation. As a fallback, manufacturers and importers could be required to list the materials and other inputs used so ministers can see if they are “injurious”.

Irrelevant tinkering

Business can then be required to accept returns of everything they’ve sold, including packaging, and demonstrate that it can all be reused or entirely recycled. The EU already requires this last phase with waste electronics. It wouldn’t have to happen overnight – it is legitimate to give companies time to adjust and prepare.

A number of products will shortly be dealt with this way through other Scottish legislation, following decisions taken at the EU level. Polystyrene food and drink packaging will be gone by the end of 2021, as will single-use plastic cups. Some of the plastic packaging labelled as “compostable” or “biodegradable” is also likely to be banned – products which claim to be beneficial but which are bad news for the environment, especially when they get mixed into actual compost.

Above all we need a comprehensive system of assessing – and restricting, where appropriate – what comes onto the market. Only then would it make sense to set targets, improve reporting, and the like. That kind of tinkering will be irrelevant if we do not stop and carefully consider what is being sold and what it’s sold in, not just high-atttention items like drinks containers. We will have to do this sooner or later, rather than endlessly allowing the sale of materials which can only be landfilled or incinerated.

Some of these ideas may be too ambitious. But why not at least start now rather than in 20 years? This Bill isn’t putting the cart before the horse. It’s all cart and absolutely no horse.