Scotland's Circular Economy Bill: Ravenous consumption of natural resources is trashing the planet. Here's how to stop – Dr Phoebe Cochrane

Since the 1970s our global consumption of natural resources has tripled, taking a devastating toll on our planet.

Our lifestyles and ever-increasing appetite for raw materials have now destroyed two-thirds of the world's rainforests, half the coral reefs and 87 per cent of all wetlands.

A staggering 90 per cent of the world’s biodiversity loss has been caused by the extraction and processing of raw materials and in Scotland alone, today, one in nine species – plant, fish and animal – is at risk of extinction.

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This is truly tragic and, more than ever, we need to heed the wake-up call. Failure to act now will only make halting the loss of species and habitats more difficult and could lead to unprecedented consequences for us and our natural world. We must address the quantity of raw materials used in our economy and fix the rapid decline of nature before it’s too late.

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Scotland’s ‘material flow accounts’ show the scale and nature of our consumption by calculating all the raw materials such as oil and metal ores that go into making all the products we use in our day to day lives, whether made in Scotland or imported.

They show that our material footprint is more than double sustainable levels. What’s more, over 80 per cent of Scotland’s carbon footprint is derived from emissions used to produce the goods we consume.

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Rather than our current economic model of fast consumption to drive economies, we need to move to a more circular economy and significantly reduce our reliance on raw materials. This means having products that are repairable and designed to last, made of materials that can be safely reused or recycled. It also means restoring soil and nature, the foundational building blocks of life on Earth.

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Regular beach clean-ups help reduce the amount of litter but the real solution is to create a circular economy in which nothing is wasted (Picture: Catherine Gemmell/Marine Conservation Society)

Next month, the Scottish Government will release its much-awaited proposals for the Circular Economy Bill in a consultation document. Scottish Environment Link, together with 35 organisations, have today published a paper calling on the Scottish Government to bring forward an ambitious Circular Economy Bill that is fit for purpose.

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This is our chance to develop a long-term strategy that makes economic and environmental sense. The bill must include a vision for an economy in which waste and pollution are designed out, products and materials are kept in use and natural systems are regenerated; and which embeds the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

Our climate and nature emergencies demand systemic change across our economy. Such systemic change must be driven by targets to focus minds – in all areas of the economy – on reducing our use of raw materials.

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In the same way that our climate change targets are driving policy to decarbonise energy and heat production, a material footprint target is key to driving policy to create a resilient and sustainable economy.

The plundering of natural resources is putting nature at risk (Picture: Sandra Graham)
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The Circular Economy Bill should also include an obligation to publish a plan, updated every five years, which maps out how to meet our targets, how to address environmentally damaging materials and chemicals, and the requirements that will be placed on different sectors, to help achieve our transition to a more circular economy.

Its proposals will include banning the destruction of unsold goods, a welcome step, but only one part of the jigsaw. There should be mandatory public reporting on surplus stock and waste, including supply chain waste for retailers and food services, so we can see how much waste is behind what we buy.

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We need to ensure products stay in use for as long as possible and their use is optimised. Legislation should introduce a repairability index, telling consumers how easy a product is to repair. This both informs consumer choice and pushes manufactures to make products which are durable and can be readily mended.

Retailers should be required to take back products at the end of their life. This will encourage them to think about the products they sell, incentivising design that retains value in components and materials.

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In general, we must move away from single use. Products that are particularly environmentally harmful such as plastic wet wipes, should be banned, and reusable alternatives promoted. Single-use cups and other crockery should be banned where possible and again reusable alternatives sought. In our villages, towns and cities, there should be re-useable cup deposit schemes – similar to those planned for bottles and cans next year.

When things can no longer be repaired or reused, the materials from which they are made need to be recycled. The Bill must include a commitment to phase out harmful chemicals, which make re-use and recycling unsafe, and composite materials, that are difficult to recycle.

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It is not only environmental charities which want an ambitious Circular Economy Bill. Many businesses, from those involved in resource management, to construction, to biotechnology and textiles; want to do the right thing and are leading the way in more circular practices. However, a more sustainable approach is often more expensive and legislation that ‘levels the playing field’ is needed.

The health of our planet is deteriorating at an alarming rate, placing us at a critical point in our history and leaving us with no alternative but to live more responsibly. We can no longer get away with taking what we want from nature and damaging its delicate balance with no repercussions on the precious life it helps to sustain. Put bluntly, this includes us and the future well-being of our children.

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Nature is resilient. Given the chance, it has an amazing capacity to regenerate. It’s for us to heed the wake-up call before it really is too late.

Dr Phoebe Cochrane, Scottish Environment Link

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