Below we examine our vision of a National Resources Agency and how Scotland can work towards zero-waste.
There is no such thing as waste. We live on one planet with one atmosphere, one set of natural resources. When we throw things into landfill all we do is bury those natural resources where we can’t use them. The planet is finite; the more resources we bury, the fewer resources we have – and there are many resources we are simply running out of. It’s not waste; there’s no such thing. It’s just very bad, very short-sighted resource management. So we need to create a National Resources Agency and get to zero-waste.
We have created a linear economy in which the life of resources ends, as if they’d never existed. We extract minerals and organic materials, we process them into materials, we manufacture those into products, we sell the products, we use the products and then we bury them in the ground and start again. But nothing is really linear on planet earth and all these resources are very slowly returning to the earth, often poisoning it in the process. We need to learn how nature uses resources and mimic it (‘biomimicry’). Just as soil becomes plants and then plants become soil so every material we use must, at the end of its life, become the starting materials of our next economic cycle.
The linear economy is absolutely central to our current environmental crisis. It’s not just resource shortages, or the poisoning of the earth and the ocean, or the mass extinction of species. It’s constantly burning energy to keep digging up more resources and processing them and manufacturing them and then transporting them to market and then starting again. The stupidity of the linear economy is that we dig up more of the same things we just threw away, materials we can use again (or design to compost).
Why does this stupidity happen? Because of the limitations of the market system – it may be efficient at distributing goods but at no point in the manufacturing chain does anyone pay the cost (the externality) of the destruction of the environment or the waste of materials. Neither manufacturers nor retailers pay anything at all for the carbon they emit. Plastic producers pay nothing to clean up the seas, battery manufacturers pay no surcharge to reflect the rarity of the minerals they use. But someone has to pay. In fact, the reason that the Common Home Plan costs £170 billion is because it’s we who are paying the cost, and when some products become so inordinately expensive because we’ve run out of the stuff they’re made with, everyone will pay the price.
We must make things reflect their real cost – we need ‘externality taxes’. If the cost of taking all that carbon out of the air was paid by the people who make steel they’d be digging up old landfill because recycling would be cheaper. If the cost of batteries reflected the rarity of the materials in them they’d be remanufactured. It’s not just about everything becoming more expensive, it’s about the wrong things becoming more expensive so we start doing the right things – we simply shouldn’t import products from far away on carbon- belching ships if we can produce them more locally. If it’s cheaper to throw things away and make them from scratch again, we’re doing something wrong. And we should simply ban certain materials altogether – just as we don’t use asbestos in buildings anymore, we simply shouldn’t use single use plastics for anything in the future.
There is an even more effective way to achieve this, called ‘Producer Responsibility’. It means that whoever produces a product is responsible for its entire lifecycle. The consumer’s relationship to the product is more like leasing – when you’re done with it you take it back to where you got it from and it’s their responsibility to reuse all the materials. The impact would be huge – manufacturers would be motivated to make everything reusable, upgradable, repairable. They would simplify the materials they use to make this easier, they would use ‘reduction design’ where they’d make products which require less material in the first place. They’d ‘dematerialise’ goods, not only reducing the materials used but trying not to use any materials at all, like online news. More and more they’d want to change how you buy. Companies would want to lease you televisions and constantly upgrade them rather than have to get hundreds of thousands of used televisions delivered to their factories. We’d all use ‘sharing economy’ approaches – rather than buy a DIY tool we may only use once or twice we’d borrow one from a local ‘share shop’.
Not everything can be done in Scotland alone, but there is an awful lot we can do. Imposing a deposit scheme on things like takeaway coffee cups would make us all take reusable cups back to the coffee shop (and it would be their responsibility to wash and reuse the cups). We can require standardised packaging so that, for example, all jars and bottles have standardised sizes and shapes and can therefore quickly be cleaned and reused, even by another manufacturer.
One enormous area of potential for Scotland is in new and advanced materials – because of our enormous potential for forestry. Many of the things we currently make out of plastic can be made out of moulded cross-laminated wood instead. Many of the non-recyclable packaging materials can be replaced with paper and cardboard products. It is already possible to ‘3D print’ using wood dust and organic resins, so there is no reason many complex components could not be made with wood. And the cellulose in wood is the starting material for bioplastics (which compost at the end of their life). Scotland should invest in advanced wood-based materials and we should do everything we can to end the use of non-reusable materials.
This creates a circular economy but with a hierarchy – because ‘recycling’ is failure. Never mind the cost of recycling and the energy it uses, recycling often degrades the quality of what is being recycled – high quality plastic goes in, low quality plastic comes out and soon what comes out can’t be recycled any more so ends up in landfill. And landfill is worse, so recycling should always be the first response to failure, but it is still a failure to use resources in the best possible way. First we should emphasise reuse (like milk bottles or reusable take-away cups) and the sharing economy. Second we should repair – and always build products to a quality that makes them worth repairing. Third we should ‘remanufacture’. This is different from recycling because rather than processing things back to their constituent materials you dismantle products and reuse their component parts as is – why melt down a hinge or a ball bearing if you’re just going to use the material to make another hinge or ball bearing? Only items which can’t be recovered through any of these processes should be recycled, and broken down to component materials.
There is one remaining fact which we can’t ignore – that we simply consume too much. Of course, not all consumption is bad for the environment. Information, software, and mass media have minimal impact (if powered by renewable energy) and these are dynamic industries key to Scotland’s economy. But the consumption of physical things (like ‘fast fashion’ and disposable plastic toys) needs to be drastically reduced. We buy presents people don’t really want, items whose only real function is to mark our status, novelty goods whose sole purpose is to provide one laugh and then be thrown away. These things do not make us happier, but they do an enormous amount of harm. We must buy less but buy better and spend more of our money on activities that really make us happy.