A circular economy is one where resources are used sparingly and cycled as much as possible before being disposed of responsibly.  

We currently use resources in a linear way – we take from nature to make products, use them for a short time – sometimes even once – and throw them away. This system causes environmental and social destruction globally. 

In Scotland, the opportunity to change this is coming with the new Circular Economy Bill. We need to make sure it’s as effective as possible. 

What is the Circular Economy Bill? 

The Scottish Government is creating a new law which will bring in policies to move Scotland towards a circular economy, as is absolutely crucial. It’s a chance to completely change the way we use materials and the impact they have on climate justice. 

The draft law, known as a bill, was laid before parliament in June, and it will be scrutinised by MSPs over the coming months, with various stages where it may be changed. This means that we have a great opportunity at the moment to put pressure on our politicians to make it as good as possible. 

Currently, the draft law includes some positive changes, but if it’s going to be effective, it needs to be much stronger.  

Scotland’s consumption leads to global harm 

In Scotland, as in many rich countries, unsustainable amounts of materials are used every year. In 2019, the average Scot used 19 tonnes of materials – over double the sustainable limit.  

Many of these materials are being taken from lower income countries in the Global South, where resources are plundered without thought to the communities or wildlife who lived there before the corporations moved in.

For example, the lithium used in electric cars in Scotland is most likely to come from Chile or Australia. In Chile, local communities are permitted to use less water than mining companies and mining lithium emits more carbon than coal extraction. The steel used to make Scottish offshore wind turbines mainly comes from iron ore mines in Canada and Brazil. In Brazil, there have been a number of failures of tailing dams at iron ore mining sites that has led to the loss of lives of hundreds of people. 

Each step of production processes create carbon emissions, pollution and social injustice. In fact, 80% of our carbon footprint in Scotland comes from the products we buy. It’s clear we desperately need to change this. 

Big businesses are failing to act 

Most people in Scotland are concerned about the climate crisis and do what they can to make a difference – but individual action is not enough because it is the underlying systems which are driving unsustainable actions.  

Despite their greenwashing promises, big businesses are failing to change their harmful and polluting practices. Cars, laptops and mobile phones are made using material extracted by children – 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo where, Amnesty International reports, children as young as seven are involved in mining activity. The products on our shelves are often wrapped in packaging, single use and unrecyclable and, even if they are recyclable, many people do not have access to the right services to do this.  

Moving to a circular economy is about much more than just improving our recycling. Strong consumption targets would mean policies to encourage producers to make products last for longer, ensure they are easy to repair, choose lower carbon materials, and to shift consumption patterns away from carbon intensive goods and services goods and services. 

It’s clear big businesses aren’t doing this on their own, so they must be legislated to do so. 

The Scottish Government isn’t taking responsibility for our global impact 

There are big gaps in the Scottish Government’s climate policies. Scotland’s climate change plan is based on reducing domestic emissions – it doesn’t include impacts from our imports, which make up 58% of our carbon footprint. This gap means plans to reduce emissions are less effective than they should be: Scotland’s climate targets can be met by pushing economic activity outside of our borders rather than finding real solutions.  

The way Scottish scrap steel is recycled is an example of how counterproductive this can be. When Ravenscraig steel mill closed in 1992, 3.5 million tonnes of carbon were wiped of Scotland’s carbon balance sheets. Today, Scotland’s high-quality scrap steel from oil and gas decommissioning is exported for recycling. Zero Waste Scotland have estimated that 665 jobs could be created and £389m in GVA added to the Scottish economy by reprocessing some steel in Scotland. Although carbon emissions in Scotland would rise, overall it would save 60% on global emissions compared to the current approach.  

The Scottish Government is also failing to consider where the materials required for its policies will come from. For example, according to research paid for by the Scottish Government, decarbonise our energy infrastructure will need 50,000t of neodymium – that’s 16% of global production in 2022. There is a risk that the Scottish Government will fail to implement its climate and energy agenda because it unrealistically assumes all the materials it needs will be available.  

The solution is to cut materials as we move our transport, energy and food sectors away from fossil fuels. That means making companies take responsibly for cleaning up the products they design and make, more public transport so people don’t need to buy their own cars and products that last for longer and are easier to repair. The Scottish Government needs to change the way the whole economy works to reduce material use effectively. 

What does a strong circular economy bill look like? 

A truly circular economy minimises the materials we take from nature, cutting our global emissions that are causing the climate crisis and reducing harm too. It is a fundamental part of creating a just and sustainable world. Scotland can step towards this future by using the new circular economy law to create the framework we need to make this a reality. 

To make the Circular Economy Bill as strong as possible, Scottish Parliament must ensure the hidden impact of our imports are included in our climate plans – it’s the only way we can truly take responsibility for our global impact. To do this, the Circular Economy Bill needs to include consumption reduction targets that can fill the gaps of our existing climate targets.  

This will kick start changes in the way policies are made so that materials are factored into decision making. There will be a real incentive to develop low carbon supply chains for Scottish made wind turbines, a drive towards active and public transport options so that cars are no longer needed and more networks for everyone to share and reuse as much as possible. 

Of course, Scotland can’t change the whole supply chain on its own. But, as a net-importing nation, the choices Scotland has over what we buy is a powerful one. When Scotland has shown climate leadership in the past, it has been a catalyst for change on a larger scale, such as introducing funding pledges for loss and damage in international climate negotiations. The Circular Economy Bill is an opportunity for Scotland to lead once again.