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The Next Economy
While Scotland Flourishes, Red Tape Puts the Brakes on Circular Economy in the UK

With UK Prime Minister Theresa May putting Article 50 into effect, many questions have arisen in regards to the UK’s sustainability agenda. Uncertainty exists about whether the economic powerhouse and EU defector will adhere to the ambitious goals laid out by its counterparts on the continent or if it will take a more reserved approach to the climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. But even if the UK decides to continue pushing an ambitious agenda, deeply rooted politics and red tape could prove problematic for progress.

According to a new report released by the UK’s Environmental Services Association (ESA), dated planning practices and a distinct ‘control culture’ is creating obstacles for the adoption of sustainable waste management projects and halting the widespread adoption of a circular economy.

“Many local authorities need to let go of the strict control culture that has prevailed in one form or another since the ‘landfill era’ and instead adopt a more responsive approach to planning for waste management which better recognizes the variable and dynamic nature of the space in which our industry now operates. Our industry increasingly resembles that of any other logistics business with materials moved around as markets dictate,” said Stephen Freeland, policy advisor for the ESA.

“Few other sectors face the same planning and political obsession about the origin of material or commodities and where these should be transported to. To hamstring the resource and waste management industry in such a way will likely hamper investment and progress towards the objectives of the circular economy.”

Investment in new waste and recycling infrastructure could generate a number of benefits for communities across the UK, including the creation of 50,000 new jobs, increased investment that could boost GDP by approximately £3 billion, and generation of an additional £1.4 billion in recycling-derived revenues for the economy. However, challenges presented by the planning system, such as lengthy planning consent processes, rejection and more, are creating obstacles for both investment opportunities and the implementation of waste management development.

A complete overhaul of the planning system is not necessary, but the ESA says that creating a more integrated, responsive system is crucial in order to ensure that the economic and environmental benefits of a circular economy are not missed.

“In the longer term, flexibility to adapt to new business models, new ways of thinking and meeting the demands of an increasingly environmentally conscious customer base will all take on greater significance,” said Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of ESA. “The planning system needs to adapt to these changes too and enable the industry to position itself to optimally manage material flows and source sustainable end markets for materials produced by the wider economy.”

Meanwhile, a report by the University of Sheffield reveals that Scotland is uniquely positioned to become a world leader in the CO2 utilization market.

According to the report, an abundance of biogenic CO2 from Scotland’s food and drink sector, ample renewable energy resources and a centralized supply opportunity (10 of the largest CO2 emitters are located within 50 miles of Grangemouth) are just a few of the country’s many advantages.

Together, carbon re-use — such as in the case of the Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals plant in Tamil Nadu, India which is transforming captured carbon into base chemicals — and carbon capture and storage spurred by the adoption of new technologies across the waste-to-energy, gas, oil, paper and wood industries could help generate hundreds of new jobs and establish a £500 million market in Scotland.

“For most countries and policy makers around the world, carbon dioxide is viewed only as a problem that needs to be controlled. However, with the ongoing development of novel technologies and processes for the re-use of CO2 it is also starting to be viewed as a potential resource that could be exploited,” said Dr. Grant Wilson, principal author of the study.

“This report identifies that Scotland has a unique combination of key advantages and a real opportunity to explore and develop its carbon dioxide resources. It is also important to note that it is one of the first countries in the world to even consider the creation of a roadmap for the re-use of its carbon dioxide, in essence, to view CO2 as a resource.”