Between now and 2020, Scotland will import £50 million worth of gold embedded in TVs, computers and smartphones. It isn’t the only material in this resource treasure trove. There will also be silver, copper, lithium and a host of rare earth elements. Getting at it all is far from easy – or cheap – but with resources running out it will pay to keep them closer to home and out of landfill.
And not just for the high-value resources, either. Making the most of paper, plastics, metals, glass and food within Scotland’s borders will save billions and reduce the country’s exposure to the world’s increasingly volatile commodity markets.
This so-called circular approach will also create jobs – thousands of them. Did you know, for instance, that landfilling 100,000 tonnes of waste creates six jobs. Recycling the same amount creates 36, but if it were all re-used then 294 jobs would be created.
“A more circular economy, where we make things last, is an economic, environmental and moral necessity,” says environment secretary Richard Lochhead. From making goods to last longer, ready to be upgraded and repaired, to reducing the need for raw materials and “smarter” recycling, the concept “just makes good sense”, he adds.
That doesn’t make it easy, though
Consider the recycling targets, for example. By 2013, all Scottish councils should have met a requirement to recycle 50% of household waste. However, in 2014 only 12 of the 32 had managed to get there. By 2020 the target is 60%. Come 2025 it is 70%. “That is a huge, huge target,” says Stratton McDonald, service co-ordinator for South Ayrshire Council.
Those targets are part of the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012, which also include a 2021 ban on sending biodegradable municipal waste to landfill.
This is all “part of our transition to a more circular economy”, the government notes in Making Things Last, the country’s first circular economy strategy.
Published in February, the proposals are another big leap in resource policy. They include further targets – most significantly a 33% reduction in food waste by 2025, which will put Scotland on track to deliver the UN sustainable development goal of halving food waste by 2050. Again, it makes sense.
“Food waste is one of our biggest global challenges,” explains Iain Gulland at Zero Waste Scotland. “Reducing it will reduce carbon dioxide emissions, save our natural resources, save us money and help boost our economy.” But given that food waste has been cut by just 5.7% since 2009, it’s another huge, huge target.
Indeed, the European Commission removed a target to reduce food waste by 30% by 2025 from its new Circular Economy Package, published back in December. In its stead came an aspiration to halve food waste by 2030 and a commitment to develop a common methodology for measuring food waste. Some of the recycling targets were also revised downwards; this was to make them “realistic rather than pie in the sky”, according to vice-president Frans Timmermans. His colleague in Brussels, the EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella, was in Edinburgh to help unveil Scotland’s own ambitious plans.
“[We also have] ambitious plans for a more circular economy and we look forward to working with Scotland to help ‘make things last’ and turn a circular economy into a reality,” he said at the time.
One of the reasons the Commission decided to rip up the previously agreed package of proposals and start again was because of the focus on traditional waste policies such as landfill bans and ever-rising recycling targets. Not enough focus had been placed on preventing waste, designing products that last longer and are easily repairable and, eventually, recyclable.
Scotland has kept its ambitious recycling targets, but it clearly wants to look at the ‘full circle’. The new circular economy strategy “shifts our focus beyond recycling, encouraging businesses to grow and create new value through design, innovation and deeper collaboration with customers and supply chains”, says Linda Hanna, managing director of strategy and sectors at Scottish Enterprise.
Much like Timmermans, Scotland’s Lochhead wants his policy to include a greater focus on producer responsibility – this involves ensuring that provision for dealing with products at the end of their life is fully taken into consideration when they are placed on the market.
“We want to stimulate debate on a more comprehensive approach to producer responsibility, through a single framework for all product types that drives choices for reuse, repair and remanufacture, while more fully exposing and addressing the costs of recycling and disposal,” the environment secretary notes.
Scotland has targeted tyres, furniture and mattresses. “We want to explore how we can make the costs of recycling and disposing of products more transparent to consumers to help influence their purchase choices,” Lochhead explains.
Similar moves are already under way in other categories, notably electronics. The EU’s eco design regulations have made the display of energy efficiency labels mandatory. But there are plans to extend the product list and revise the laws, with durability and repairability of products on the legislative radar. This in turn has put poor-quality products and, more controversially, built-in obsolescence, in the crosshairs.
There are still plenty of good-quality, durable products on the market, but there has been a general drive in the budget end of the market towards cheaper and cheaper products that just don’t last, suggests Mark Hilton, resource efficiency lead at consultancy Eunomia.
Research carried out for the German environment agency, published in February, showed the proportion of large household appliances replaced within less than five years due to a defect had increased from 3.5% to 8.3% between 2004 and 2013.
The researchers pointed the finger at manufacturers, but consumers were also partly to blame, they said: a third of the replacements were motivated by a desire for a better model even though the old one was in perfect working order.
In some categories the balance perhaps tips even further towards the consumer. Smartphones have become a status symbol, with the market led by the aesthetics of design rather than the impacts of it. As New Scientist noted last year: “If you are one of the estimated two billion people in the world that now own a smartphone, you are walking around with a periodic table in your pocket.”
Silicon, tin, copper, lithium and silver are all in there, as well as a number of the rare earth elements – most of which can only be found in China. The term “rare” isn’t a reflection of their availability, but it’s hard to know when demand might outstrip supply.
In 2013, a team from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies analysed 62 metals used to produce everything from smartphones to solar panels. “Not one metal has an ‘exemplary’ substitute for all its major uses,” the researchers concluded.
“We all like our gadgets; we all like our smartphones. But in 20 or 30 years, will we still have access to all the elements necessary to provide the particular functions that make a smartphone so great?” asked Barbara Reck, co-author of the study.
Based on her findings, she said it is unlikely that substitution alone can solve potential supply restrictions for any of the metals on the periodic table. This means more of the value from ‘old’ products has to be extracted.
In a circular economy this happens “by design” with products, components and materials kept at “their highest quality and value” at all times, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Policy lead Jocelyn Blériot says it’s unfair to place too much onus on the consumer – it’s the systems that need to change.
This isn’t happening at the moment, at least on a significant scale. For example, just a “tiny fraction” of the gold that Scotland imports in products will be recovered. This can’t continue. What’s more, some materials may have to be phased out, but it’s too early to say which ones.
Making things last
Keeping materials in the ‘loop’ for longer is one thing, but expanding product lifetimes will be much more challenging.
The German researchers found no evidence of in-built obsolescence in their study, but they did conclude that consumers require help to choose products with longer lifespans, and have to be discouraged from seeking the latest model too early.
Determining what constitutes a decent lifespan for a product can be a mug’s game.“You might not want a product to last 15 years because the next [model] may well be much more energy-efficient,” Eunomia’s Hilton explains. The optimum life is very much product-specific, he adds.
This is an argument that technology brands are prepared to use in a bid to water down any new measures under the Ecodesign Directive, which could ultimately include a label on life expectancy.
While the possible resource crunch hasn’t really got the sector in a sweat, the Commission’s plans to extend the regulation to cover durability, recyclability and repairability as part of the new Circular Economy Package has got firms hot under the collar. DigitalEurope, for example, has warned that some of the measures will increase costs and undermine competitiveness. It will also “inevitably confuse and frustrate” consumers if products don’t last, the lobby group noted in a policy paper.
Eunomia’s Hilton notes that testing could be costly, but simulation models are improving. He believes that a clear A to G-style system on durability/repairability, or just an expected lifespan figure in years, “would be an enormous help to the consumer in making ‘better’ choices”.
The plans have been put on ice, however, amid reported fears in Brussels that they would galvanise support for those in the UK campaigning to leave the EU. Yet the implementation of these ambitious policies is not as far-fetched as it may seem.
Vacuum cleaners have received plenty of attention recently thanks to changes to energy-efficiency regulations that will see the most powerful cleaners banned.
What press reports didn’t pick up on was that the Commission also snuck in a minimum motor life of 500 hours, and changed the energy label to also reflect performance characteristics.
Scotland seems keen to lobby for more of the same. “We want more products to be designed for longer lifetimes, ready to be disassembled, repaired and eventually recycled; with more companies keeping hold of valuable products and components through leasing, servicing, repair and re-sale,” the Scottish government notes in its strategy.
Remanufacturing will inevitably be boosted, while the repair sector will be “empowered”. But how about recycling? “We want […] more consistent local services, more packaging designed for recyclability, and every household [to have] access to a food waste service,” the strategy reads. Even this will be easier said than done, but in the long run, economically, environmentally and socially, it certainly makes sense.