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Going Circular, from the Grassroots

June saw three of Europe’s biggest circular economy gatherings take place – the inaugural World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE100 Summit in London, and the Circular Economy Hotspot, hosted by Luxembourg. 

Iain Gulland | 5 Jul 17

It’s great to see such high profile, genuinely international events becoming part of our ‘landscape’ – and I was delighted that Scotland was well represented at each.

As ever, it’s interesting to see what different people take away as key themes and messages are from events like these.  For me, it was really interesting to note how the role of the citizen, as an active participant in the circular economy, was to the fore in many discussions I had.

Rewind a few years when the circular economy concept was starting to emerge and the sense was that the public’s role was quite a passive one and that the solutions to circularity needed to be business-led.  As an area that will rely heavily on innovation, that’s a valid view to hold.  But increasingly, the scope of the conversation has widened out to consider the importance of government actors in terms of legislation, regulation and leadership, and now to the ‘civic space’ occupied by communities and individuals around how we translate the conceptual framework of the circular economy into tangible actions and behaviours that we can adopt and support, often at grassroots level.

This is something we’ve consistently recognised in our work, thanks in large part to the challenge laid down by our previous Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead to make the circular economy relevant to the ‘man in the street’.  When the Scottish Government consulted on its circular economy strategy, we delivered a social media campaign using the hashtag #MakeThingsLast, which reached over 1 million people and which involved dynamic engagement with young people about visioning a circular economy future.

It’s interesting that younger people engaging with the circular economy such as the Schmidt MacArthur Fellows I met at their recent summer school see it very much as a social change movement. 

There’s an opportunity here to understand how best we can build that movement from the grassroots.  Scotland has always had strong communitarian instincts and that’s something we’ve tapped into over the years.  Most recently, our Zero Waste Towns initiative has invested in two mostly rural communities, Dunbar and Bute, to develop local capacity for community-led initiatives that increase circularity.  Both are developing a strong legacy.  In Dunbar, the community is now running a re-use operation alongside the local authority’s household waste recycling centre, diverting valuable items for re-use and repair.  

And in Bute, they have gone one step further and created a virtual ‘re-use hub’ which links up four geographically-dispersed re-use and upcycling social enterprises through a shared e-commerce platform and reverse logistics operation.   The motivation for both is to create social and economic benefits as well as being more resource savvy.  One of the biggest issues island communities like Bute face is depopulation, especially because of young people leaving, so creating sustainable training and employment opportunities that align with their 21st century values can be hugely powerful.

We’re used to describing the circular economy as a restorative and regenerative force.  Recognising that applies to human capital as much as it does natural resources could be the next big paradigm shift.   It already is in Bute.

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