Linda Ovens is an Associate Director with Amec Foster Wheeler and chair of the Scottish Centre of the Chartered Institution of Waste Management (CIWM). She is based in Edinburgh where she leads a team delivering Resource Efficiency and Waste Management consultancy services to public and private sector clients. She talks to Anna Simpson about the future of the circular economy.
Anna Simpson: Do you think the circular economy is taking off?
Linda Ovens: It is in Scotland – which was recognised as one of the top five nations pushing the circular economy agenda – alongside Denmark, The Netherlands, Sweden and Japan. With devolved government, Scotland can take a different direction to England, and here there’s definitely a push for greater resource management. The Scottish Government published a paper called ‘Safeguarding Scotland’s Resources’, which is the overarching plan, and Zero Waste Scotland as a delivery body for that. Scotland has signed up to a complete shift in the resource sector, setting a number of targets for the re-use and recycling and the recovery of materials, while the EU has been caught up in debates about whether its own targets are achievable.
AS: What’s really driving this agenda in Scotland?
LO: It’s not just the environmental agenda anymore: it’s in plans for the economy and jobs – part of the Government’s financial and economic portfolio. It’s driven by the recognition that the markets don’t exist now for low-grade recycled materials. China is saying it only wants the best quality material. So it became very clear to the Scottish economy that we needed to do something differently to capture that value. This affects everything from collection at source through to value creation: taking ‘waste’ out of ‘waste resource management’. A National Brokerage Service is being set up to pull together all of this high-quality material so we can then put a larger volume onto the market, and actually have better control of what we’re collecting to keep and what we’re trading. This is an opportunity to bring manufacturing back into Scotland, creating jobs, and upskilling our population.
AS: Is that an immediate hope or a longer term hope?
LO: No, it’s pretty short-term: probably in the next three years. The National Brokerage Service was just announced in October 2014, so it will take a while to get that sorted. They’re talking about being able to trade by this summer and then we’ll be able to really look ahead. There are a number of evidence based studies going on at the moment looking at specific sectors in Scotland: the oil and gas market, the chemicals industry – the refineries and so on. There’s a whole bunch of steel sitting out in the North Sea that will have to come to ashore at some point. What do we do with that? Where does the market go with that? Can we turn that into a new smelting plant in Scotland? What level of investment would that take?
AS: And what’s actually happening now?
LO: Well, there’s a lot of activity in the logistics sector. One example is furniture take-back schemes. We had the Commonwealth Games here this year, so there are pledges that the furniture from the Athlete Villages will all go to community projects. Some niche recycling and reuse initiatives, that didn’t seem to have much of a future in terms of normal trading practices a couple of years ago, are definitely part of the discussion now. Last year we set up a re-manufacturing hub at Strathclyde University: that’s to capture the innovation in the market. We have a manufacturer which is now refurbishing gearboxes for Hyundai cars; it’s providing warranties so that these old car parts can go straight back into brand new manufacturing. I’m talking about small businesses, but they are growing: Scottish Enterprise is now really pushing their future.
AS: One potential criticism or concern for the circular economy is that it will simply enable more growth and so potentially more use of raw materials. Do you see that as a concern?
LO: I don’t see that, because we’ve got the evidence of re-manufacture industry actually talking to big suppliers. It is able to offer products that are recognised in terms of quality as equal to the primary alternatives. But it is a financial market, and at present the secondary materials – because they are required to be as good as, if not better, than primary ones – tend to cost more. We’re still consumer-led, so it’s about shifting from being a throw-away society trading in cheap materials expected to only last two seconds. There’s more recognition that spending a little bit more does give you more for your money and fewer problems in the longer term. But this is a global question: we need the global brands and companies signed up to that. It will take all of them to be moving in this direction at the same time to really make things change.
Amec Foster Wheeler is a partner of the Futures Centre.
Image credit: Andrew Walch / Flickr