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Waste Not
Scotland’s Circular Ambitions Take (Hopefully Temporary) Back Seat During Pandemic

COVID-19 has delayed both the Scottish Climate Change Plan update and the Scottish Circular Economy Bill. While it’s unclear now whether the latter will ever see the light of day, stakeholders agree that the delay is a welcome opportunity to reassess and strengthen the Bill.

On the face of it, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be disrupting international efforts to forge more circular economies. Fears over contamination have led to a surge in demand for single-use plastic packaging; and landfills are enjoying a renaissance as municipal recycling is scaled back, and fly-tipping is on the rise.

In the UK, the crisis has also dented progression of key policies. When it was announced earlier this month that the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow was to be postponed, it was almost inevitable that Scotland’s government would also look to afford itself some breathing space.

First came the announcement that the Scottish Climate Change Plan update, due by the end of April, would be delayed. This was followed by news that the Scottish Circular Economy Bill, a key piece of legislation, would not be progressed.

Measures proposed under the Bill included push measures — such as giving ministers the power to place charges on disposable items such as coffee cups — along with pull measures, such as requiring public bodies to undertake more circular procurement to stimulate demand for remanufactured and refurbished goods.

It remains unclear now whether the Bill will ever see the light of day. Official communication issued by ministers to key stakeholders with an interest in the Bill stated: “We are grateful for all your input into the development of our legislative proposals. This will still be available and ready to use, should similar legislation be brought forward in the future.”

Given that Scotland is considered a leader in circular thinking, especially when it comes to policy-making, it would be surprising if the Bill wasn’t resurrected at some point in the future. What this blip does do, however, is buy policy-makers some time — especially as many working in the environmental sector think the Bill is lacking in ambition.

“We believe the draft Bill could have been stronger and this should be viewed as a useful opportunity to go back to the drawing board,” Jacob Hayler, executive director at the Environmental Services Association, told Sustainable Brands™ in a recent interview. “Perversely, this could actually assist Scotland’s ambitions to be a circular economy world leader, as it provides an opportunity to strengthen key aspects of the Bill to make it truly ambitious and revolutionary.”

Echoing this view, one source said that they’d rather the Bill “was delayed and re-presented to Parliament with better-thought-out proposals.”

Hayler believes the Bill could do “much more” to help create resilient markets for recyclates and support a strong domestic reprocessing and manufacturing sector. He also points out that the proposals were silent on circular options for treating residual waste.

“All levels of the waste hierarchy should be addressed — and that includes prioritizing energy from waste for society’s non-recyclable, combustible waste; which, in turn, provides a source of low-carbon energy to help power remanufacturing activities,” Hayler maintains.

Whether ministers will look to address these issues remains to be seen. But Adam Read, external affairs director at Suez UK, says he can’t see any reason for the Bill not to be reenacted once the pandemic is under control.

“This isn’t a race to be first, but something that needs the right policy and regulatory framework and equally the right level of stakeholder support and buy-in. As such, let’s get it right to avoid any false dawns,” Read asserts.

For now, the Scottish government intends to deliver its circular economy objectives through other means. These include the implementation of a deposit return scheme, helping to develop a UK-wide extended producer responsibility scheme for packaging, and delivering a food waste reduction action plan.

Hayler says progress towards these objectives is not directly reliant on the Bill’s passing. He points out that deposit return regulations were laid in the Scottish Parliament for approval at the same time the Circular Economy Bill was dropped.

That said, he believes that the food waste reduction action plan — which aims to reduce food waste by 33 percent by 2025 — could “well benefit” from enhanced legislation on additional food waste measures as proposed in the Bill. This would include encouraging businesses to report on their food waste.

Perhaps what’s happening in Scotland has wider lessons for other countries that are also having to pause plans when it comes to re-engineering less wasteful economies. What the pandemic has done is highlight the importance of domestic self-sufficiency in producing critical materials, especially as global supply chains get squeezed.

“A greater focus on recyclables recovered from the waste stream as a resilient source of materials for our packaging and manufacturing sectors could be one of the rare positives to emerge from the crisis,” Hayler says.

Read echoes this.

“We mustn’t let the health and safety and virus-limiting activities of this crisis to get in the way of putting the circular economy agenda back on the front foot,” he says. “What the lockdown period has shown us is that different ways of working are not a threat. We must embrace the opportunity, post-COVID-19, to continue with some of the best bits of our innovation and adaptation in recent weeks; whilst creating the right functionality and technology platforms to enable new more circular and resource-efficient means of operation.”

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