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The year that sustainability went mainstream

More and more people are getting behind the idea of a circular economy, but we're not there yet.

Iain Gulland | 18 Dec 18

I distinctly remember, sitting on the Stirling to Edinburgh train near the beginning of the year, overhearing a couple sat opposite me having an in-depth discussion about the impact of plastic waste on our oceans.

I remember it so well because it felt like a watershed moment – the conversations that folk like me have been having for years in the office or at events attended by other environmental enthusiasts were now being had by commuters.

The reason, of course, was the BBC 1 series Blue Planet II and David Attenborough’s powerful articulation of the devastation being reaped upon our natural world by plastics.

The public desire for something to be done about this problem was palpable, as was a wish to be part of that change. People want action from politicians and businesses, but there’s also been a clear interest in having a direct role in tackling this problem.

The challenge for us this year was to take that moment and turn it into something concrete.

The desire for change was apparent as we took Scotland’s plans for a deposit return scheme on the road over the summer. We held events in every single local authority in the country, speaking with hundreds of people about what they’d like to see from Scotland’s scheme. Many hadn’t yet heard of it, but the overwhelming majority left convinced. Indeed, from many – especially those old enough to remember leaving out their empties for the milk man or cashing their Irn Bru bottle in to fund a pick and mix – the main question was simply “what are  you waiting for?”.

The consultation has closed and we’re now working with the Scottish Government to come up with the best possible deposit return scheme design for Scotland – one which suits our specific requirements as a country, provides a boost to our recycling efforts and helps prevent litter from polluting our landscape and our seas.

While the plastic issue has garnered most of the headlines, it’s really just the symptom of a wider problem – how we live within our environmental means. This is the fundamental challenge at the heart of our work to grow Scotland’s circular economy, where we get the maximum possible value from our resources without creating any waste. And it’s been a step-change year for all things circular, not least with Scotland hosting the Circular Economy Hotspot.

The event, which ran from 30 October to 1 November in Glasgow, gave us a chance to showcase Scotland’s sustainable businesses to the world. It also profiled the support on offer for businesses, with the First Minister using her speech to announce £700,000 in funding for three great businesses with big ideas. She also announced research from Zero Waste Scotland, estimating the potential of the circular economy for Tayside and Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire alone at around £1bn. We’ll be re-doubling our efforts in 2019 to make that a reality.

The commuters on my train may have been discussing the issues around plastic pollution, but the solutions are now being seen as business opportunities by many across Scotland.

Looking back on that Blue Planet moment, one question that jumps to mind is what’s next? What will be the next story to capture the public imagination and motivate personal change and policy action? Trying to pinpoint future trends can be a fruitless task, especially in a world that feels increasingly hard to predict. That being said, there is one trend I’m certain will create even more ripple effects within society and that is fast fashion.

The world of fast fashion shocked us all earlier this year when Stacey Dooley’s BBC documentary reminded us that vast amounts of water are required to make just a single item of clothing. Water is such a precious resource around the world and, sadly, clothes are thrown away without a second thought.

My eldest daughter uses apps, like Depop or Vinted, to sell and buy pre-loved clothes that are still in fashion at a fraction of the price. She may not have realised it at first, but by relieving the pressure to source new materials, she’s actively partaking in the circular economy. And at the end of the day, that’s what we want – for this kind of thinking to be so normalised that it’s simply the way it is.

Digital technology is giving people more choices to get their hands on new outfits while still minimising their impact on the environment. If everyone in Scotland wore their clothes for just three months longer then our carbon, waste and waste footprints would be reduced by 5-10%.

As we head into the new year, I’m already looking forward to seeing more innovative circular solutions to our current problems. I am keeping in mind that for the linear consumption model to end, we need to continue inspiring people, businesses and governments to think circular. Perhaps, not too far in the future, I’ll be overhearing more and more people talk on the train about the need to protect our planet.

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