Climate change: Scotland's addiction to wasteful mass consumption is driving global warming and damaging our economy – Iain Gulland

Pressure is rightly mounting on governments worldwide ahead of the Cop26 climate crisis summit in Glasgow after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was “code red for humanity”.

He was clear that to end the climate crisis we depend on global leaders to agree and enact urgent change. In his words, “we owe this to the entire human family, especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities and nations that are the hardest hit despite being least responsible for today’s climate emergency”.

I couldn’t agree more. But while tougher policies and legislation can and do help, we can’t afford to sit and wait for Cop26. We all need to act right now by doing things differently each day at home and work. We already have the power to help save the planet and those in direst need who suffer the consequences of our lifestyle choices.

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Something as simple and mundane as making a shopping list might sound irrelevant or insignificant but it can make a real difference. So can choosing to reuse, repair or rent instead of always buying new, for everything from cups to clothes, from chairs to computers.

That’s because in Scotland, the single biggest cause of the climate crisis is everything we produce, buy and then bin, too often after just one use. Our wasteful, mass-consumption habit consistently accounts for around 80 per cent of our national carbon footprint. Around half of all that stuff is imported from other countries who are left to deal with the environmental fallout we’re creating.

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We can prevent that by collectively ditching our throwaway society and make things last longer by using them again and again instead of wasting stuff.

That’s why we need to shop smarter – choosing reusables instead of disposables, buying secondhand instead of new, hiring things like DIY tools that commonly lurk unused in cupboards because we don’t really need them.

It is estimated that a family in Scotland wastes an average of about £460 a year on food they do not eat (Picture: Ben Birchall/PA)It is estimated that a family in Scotland wastes an average of about £460 a year on food they do not eat (Picture: Ben Birchall/PA)
It is estimated that a family in Scotland wastes an average of about £460 a year on food they do not eat (Picture: Ben Birchall/PA)

That’s also why that simple shopping list really helps by enabling us to waste less through planning what we really need and how to use it well. This is especially important for reducing food waste, which costs households, businesses and the planet dearly both economically and environmentally.

It not only wastes the food itself but all the precious, carbon-intensive resources used to produce, deliver and prepare it. Whenever wasted food rots in landfill, it also produces one of the most potent greenhouse gases behind the crisis.

We’ve estimated that on average Scots waste around £460 per household per year on food they don’t eat, while companies across Scotland collectively lose millions of pounds a year on wasted food.

So, while the latest IPCC report prompted fresh concern that consumers face higher prices for flights, electricity and gas to beat the climate crisis, we can save a pile of cash and save the planet just by wasting less.

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Our experts have already helped hundreds of Scottish businesses find ways to cut their food waste which typically save firms around £5,000 a year.

There has been much talk, and understandably so, about supporting Scottish businesses and communities as we emerge from the lockdowns imposed to combat the Covid-19 crisis. But saving the planet and the economy are not mutually exclusive. We can and must do both.

As The Scotsman stated last week in its editorial in response to the IPCC report, taking action to end the climate crisis is the “business opportunity of the century”. All this waste has immense value which we can harness through the circular economy – which is how we make things last longer by reducing, reusing, repairing, remaking and recycling.

We’ve previously calculated that switching to ‘circular’ could be worth £1 billion for Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Tayside alone.

Last year our research found that around one in ten jobs in Scotland is now helping to end the climate crisis through the circular economy. We need every job to be circular if we are to meet the crucial target of ending Scotland’s contribution to the climate emergency by 2045.

Kicking our mass consumption habit will support the growing number of innovative companies which we work with to pioneer Scotland’s vital sustainable revolution, bringing much-needed greener jobs.

We provide free expert advice to help these pioneers develop ideas and scale up nationwide. People across Scotland can help too by choosing to buy or lease refurbished IT equipment for their business from companies we’ve supported like Re-Tek in East Kilbride, or renting everyday clothing from firms including Sioda in Stirling.

One of the most inventive businesses we’ve worked with is Revive Eco in Glasgow which collects used coffee grounds to create a range of products including a sustainable alternative to palm oil.

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Another Glasgow start-up is Beauty Kitchen, which is pioneering refills to help stamp out needless single-use packaging for everyday products like shampoo. It now also works with global giant Unilever and UK supermarket chain Asda to do the same for popular brands such as Persil.

The climate crisis remains the greatest challenge of our lifetime. And the latest IPCC report really is code red for humanity. It does show the urgent need for governments to do more. But it also highlights the opportunity for every single individual and business to seize the chance to act now to end the everyday waste behind the crisis. For while the world leaders at Cop26 this November have a vital role to play, the rest of us do too.

And we can’t afford to wait another day, much less three more months. The time to act is now.

Iain Gulland is chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland

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