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Saturday, December 4, 2021

What COP26 didn’t discuss: How to stop overconsumption and promote circular economies

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

The climate debate has picked up pace in recent weeks due to COP26, but we haven’t talked enough about the elephant in the room: overconsumption.

Much has been discussed about alternative ways of living – from moving towards renewable sources of energy, to driving electric cars, and using more ‘sustainable’ materials.

The problem is that we’re still heading towards climate disaster if we don’t reduce the demand on our planet’s natural resources in the first place.

The elephant we’re talking about here is particularly heavy. Our research shows that the average Scot consumes 18.4 tonnes of materials every year, when the sustainable amount is closer to eight tonnes.

Consumption in Scotland is unsustainably high and it’s safe to assume the picture is the same in many countries around the globe.

Keeping existing materials in circulation

We all feel that familiar pang of frustration when an appliance breaks down – especially after a short amount of time.

In Scotland, we’re privileged to have so much choice and easy access to goods and services. But this privilege comes at a high cost to the environment.

When something breaks or comes out of fashion, it’s all too often resigned to landfill – or worse, flytipped at the side of the road – and replaced with a brand new one.

But what if the products we buy were designed to last?

Imagine if everything had value, and nothing was wasted. What if Scotland and other countries around the world moved towards a ‘circular’ system as opposed to our ‘make, use, dispose’ linear one, which is extremely wasteful.

Zero Waste Scotland’s key remit is encouraging the public, businesses, and government to move towards a circular economy where existing materials and resources are kept in circulation.

The most crucial part of a circular economy is reducing the demand for ‘stuff’ in the first place. After all, the best way to stop a bath overflowing is by turning off the tap.

Think outside the bin

We can talk about alternative materials that claim to be kinder to the environment all day. But is this proposed solution actually a ‘COP’ out?

Among the worst offenders are fast fashion brands that claim they are doing their bit by using ‘sustainable’ materials. It’s a hard pill to swallow but constantly churning out products will still ruin the planet – no matter what they’re made of.

We urgently need to think outside the bin and move towards solutions that reduce demand and keep existing materials in circulation.

Within a circular economy, we’d consume better and smarter. Businesses would design for reuse and repair. Cast-offs and by-products would be cleverly used to make other products, thereby reducing the burden on the planet.

Recycling a product at the end of its life would be considered the last resort. Instead, we’d avoid consuming unnecessary new products as the first option. If that’s not possible, it’d be the norm to use products that are reused time and time again.

Climate change does not respect borders

Zero Waste Scotland’s research shows that four-fifths of Scotland’s footprint comes from our material and product use.

Whatever we buy, be it a new sofa or washing machine, requires energy and precious resources to manufacture and transport. Much of the materials and goods we consume have to be imported, adding more carbon to the process.

And this includes food. We all need to eat, of course, but food waste is one of the greatest causes of the climate crisis. That’s because wasting food doesn’t just waste the food itself, it also wastes all the resources that went into growing, processing and transporting that food.

Plus, when food ends up in landfill, it rots to produce methane, which is one of the worst greenhouse gases behind the climate crisis. These reasons are why food waste is actually worse for the planet than plastic.

It’s true that the nations who aren’t responsible for climate change are the ones who will suffer the most. The damage also goes beyond climate change.

The extraction of raw materials is responsible for an estimated 80 per cent of biodiversity loss – the other great environmental crisis of our time – and 85 per cent of water stress (when demand exceeds supply).

Then there are all the social and human rights challenges created by the process of extraction – for example, the number of workers who are exposed to dangerous conditions, often for poor pay, or communities displaced from their land.

Innovation is key

Over time, citizens have shifted their attitudes and adopted innovations that are kinder to the environment, so businesses have an added incentive to reduce their own consumption of raw materials.

Take Kenoteq, for example. Since launching in mid-2019, the company has been breaking new ground in the construction industry by producing innovative, low-carbon products made from recycled construction waste.

Their first product, the K-Briq, is first in a range of sustainable building products that will target the critical issues of waste reduction and the shortage in supply of construction materials.

This, and future Kenoteq innovations, will dramatically improve the recycling of construction waste in Scotland, whilst reducing overall carbon emissions.

And there are many more businesses in Scotland that are also thinking circular. Beauty Kitchen operates a ‘return, refill, repeat’ service for its products, with containers designed to be reused – enabling customers to return them for refilling.

There is also Sioda, a rental fashion company based in Stirling, who help people break up with fast fashion for good by leasing out luxury clothing as an alternative to buying new. And Macleans Bakery, nestled in the Highlands, who use beer and whisky by-products to make their popular biscuits.

So, by working together, reducing our consumption and moving towards a circular economy is entirely possible in Scotland and around the world.

It can be done. But first, we need to talk about it.

  • Iain Gulland is the CEO of Zero Waste Scotland

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