Technology can help us show the change

Written By Iain Gulland - Director, Zero Waste Scotland  |  25 Feb 14

I have never been a fan of using recycling rates as the main measure of our progress towards becoming a zero waste nation. They might be an indicator but I feel they often drag the focus away from initiatives and actions further up the resource hierarchy and can sometimes shape some less than helpful strategies, designed simply to get some runs on the board. 

Our carbon metric is, in my eyes, a much more sophisticated and true metric which stresses the importance of the whole resource hierarchy as well as recognising that it’s not really the weight of waste that we should be tackling in isolation but the carbon and material consumption impacts as a whole.

However, the recycling rate metric is what is we still have in terms of a common currency which everybody understands and the one we are measured against in terms of performance and progress. And so I am envious as the Welsh Government announces recycling rate increases in their latest quarterly reporting. Clearly in numbers Wales is leaving the rest of the UK behind, although it’s comforting to see that rates of 60% and above are both possible and credible - a far cry from the 25% rate we were all told in 2000 would be the limit of possibility.   

Commentators will question whether the Welsh phenomenon is down to statutory targets, national ambition, professional pride in the 22 councils, or a combination of all three. Regardless, the numbers are impressive and they help maintain a sense of pace and momentum, exhilarating Wales in the eyes of others.

But such pace and momentum is also large here in Scotland. I’m lucky enough to see it every day through my interactions with businesses, local authorities and communities. There is a groundswell of change and ambition here too as new recycling infrastructure comes on stream and greater awareness of the cost benefits of reduction galvanises action. 

Only last week I learned that East Dunbartonshire’s recycling rate has been on average 57% since the introduction of a new dual bin system with separate food collection in May. Incredibly a weekly rate as high as 68% has been recorded, illustrating that the art of the possible is as credible here in Scotland as it is in Wales.  What’s missing is the real time reporting to show that we’re in a period of dynamic delivery, driven by the sheer determination of individual local authority officers to make a difference.

The way we report progress also masks some of the other notable successes we know are out there, such as the amount of energy produced by our developing anaerobic digestion (AD) infrastructure, the number of jobs created across our new ‘resource’ sector, and the amount of furniture and white goods being re-used by the new ReVolve members. I’m sure these numbers are out there, but they are inaccessible or simply not reported from lack of a process for doing so. We need to catalogue our successes and our progress through such numbers to demonstrate not just to the outside world but to ourselves that change is happening and it’s happening at an impressive speed.   

I’m therefore excited by the advent of the EDOC (Electronic Duty of Care) system for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because it will, in time, allow for some real time reporting of material movements. The grasping of the technological age to track and report data will, I hope, revolutionise the resource industry and allow greater transparency of the opportunities for mining more material from our waste system for economic benefit for Scotland.  It should also allow us to report metrics which are perhaps more important to our economy, such as how much material was reprocessed in Scotland and how much was exported. The impact of different initiatives, whether they are regulatory or voluntary, local or national will also be easier to evaluate. 

Our change is real and we should be able to witness it in real time.

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