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Cutting to the chase

Another year, another Scottish Resources Conference; the sixteenth in total and the fifth in which Zero Waste Scotland has been an event partner.

Iain Gulland | 29 Sep 17

But for me, this wasn’t just another year; there was something different about this year’s event. Whether it was down to the speakers, the audience, the venue, the app or a combination of the above, I thought there was a refreshing frankness and a directness to the discussions this year. Not even, the politicians were giving politician’s answers.

Tired issues which might once have lingered like the proverbial elephant in the room were given short shrift. There was a willingness to accept messy, complex issues as being just that, rather than succumbing to the tendency to simplify them in a soundbite – and new, leftfield ideas were genuinely welcomed and given a voice. 

The epitome of this was, in my view, the ‘head-to-head’ between Mike Barry, architect of Marks and Spencer’s Plan A initiative, and Bea Johnson, the founder of the Zero Waste lifestyle movement.

Mike Barry, Marks and Spencer, Sally Magnusson and Bea Johnson, Zero Waste Home

What on paper might have a clash between the packaging-hungry retailer and the eco-evangelist was nothing of the sort. It was a discussion of respectful challenge, but not confrontation; of differing backgrounds but shared purpose. One audience member commented on social media they thought it was the best session they’d attended at a conference ever, and I can’t disagree.

The tone was well set from the start. Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, attending for the second time, was clearly up for talking frankly. On deposit return, she was clear that the argument for a system is now settled and that while challenge is still welcome it needs to be directed constructively.

Meanwhile, on recycling, she noted continued progress, but was clear that the whole system isn’t functioning as it needs to and nothing is off the table to make that right. On food waste she said that regulatory contradictions which can push good, still edible food down a waste management route, will be addressed head-on.

On our circular economy ambitions, while she was hugely upbeat about the dynamism and energy shown by a burgeoning number of businesses, Ms Cunningham was clear about the risks posed by Brexit and our need to defend the powers we have to push things further.

I could mention countless other examples over the two days that were similarly liberating and inspiring. Terry Macdonald from Oregon welcoming that that “days of dumping co-mingled rubbish in China are coming to an end”. Prasad Boradkar from Google lamenting the existence of the avocado slicer and strawberry corer when a knife would suffice. And Gerry Farrell of Leithers Don’t Litter attacking the sanitised jargon of ‘canine excrement’.

My sense is that it’s the excitement around what’s happening in Scotland when it comes to the circular economy that helps create this no-nonsense tone. I think there’s an energy and a thrill that’s spreading contagiously from sector to sector, business to business, public sector organisation to public sector organisation and community to community.

That’s making people not just to sit up and take notice but actually get up and participate - and with that participation comes an apparent impatience to make connections, join the dots and make things happen. If this is what’s leading people to say what they mean – and mean what they say – then long may it continue.

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