In Conversation with… Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland


Kim Fellows (KF) talks to Iain Gulland (IG), chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS).  

KF: Please can you tell us about your key ambitions for the organisation in 2020?

IG: Our overriding ambition for 2020 is to address overconsumption in Scotland to help end our contribution to the climate crisis. We all have an impact in terms of the goods that we consume, not just as individuals, but also in the private sector and public sector organisations.

That impact isn’t just in Scotland, overconsumption here also has an impact globally due to the huge amount of stuff we import, and we all need to do something about that.

Leading action to turn this aim into reality is at the heart of Zero Waste Scotland’s new corporate plan, which we launched last September (2019).

We are focused on bringing the problem of overconsumption – and the solution to that problem ­– to everyone’s attention, so the idea of the circular economy and how we use materials and products more sustainably in our economy is really the best way of addressing overconsumption. Our modern version of our traditional linear approach, dragging materials in from all round the world, not just from Scotland, using them and then disposing of them, is totally unsustainable, which is having a terrible impact on the planet and society in general.

KF: I think it would be helpful to hear what you want to deliver, especially with local government partners in 2020.

IG: I think local government is key in our endeavour to focus everyone’s attention on the need to tackle our overconsumption through the circular economy. Councils have a unique role to play in how we take that work forward, principally because of the amount of the money they spend on buying different products and services, from office supplies through to equipment for schools, to major infrastructure projects such as buildings that they are commissioning.

This work is a real opportunity for us all to think differently about how we consume materials, and about the carbon emissions that we don’t see or consider which are embedded in all the materials produced overseas to feed our demand. Questions need to be asked, such as ‘Can we do that differently? Can we lease equipment rather than buying it?  Can we hire stuff? Can we work a bit more collaboratively with our supply chains to provide a much more sustainable opportunity which will have environmental benefits, and will also have local economic and social benefits as well?’

One of the things we’ve done more recently with local authorities is exploring how they can buy through Scotland Excel. There is now a framework through which councils can buy secondhand furniture or white goods that have been refurbished in Scotland which can then be supplied to families who are going through a degree of crisis. That offers a real financial saving for councils – getting more equipment for less money is a good thing to address budget pressures.  There is also a real social benefit to this approach. It is helping people who are in need at that moment in time, while refurbishment is a good social opportunity in terms of jobs and training for people in Scotland. Ultimately, in terms of reducing waste and the carbon emissions that causes, it means that white goods and furniture coming through the supply side through council-owned waste management facilities can be reused. It all sounds simple when you say it, and these are the types of opportunities that we see in the circular economy.

We need to work with local government and others to take more of this kind of opportunity forward to deliver that carbon benefit.

Because, as I said before, we don’t just need to do something about the emissions that we produce here in Scotland, we also need to tackle the impact of the goods and products that we import which cause half of our nation’s carbon footprint.  I believe people do understand the carbon footprint concept, but I think it gets lost slightly in the decarbonisation agenda too. And that means that a net-zero approach develops – one where we want to electrify everything and switch to renewables. I acknowledge that that is important, absolutely, and something we need to do. But we also need to do something about the broader impact of our overconsumption, which means going beyond net-zero to tackle those emissions overseas.

KF: Could you just explain what decarbonising the economy and net-zero means?

IG: Decarbonising means taking fossil fuels out of the equation and using renewable energy instead, so that we stop producing the carbon emissions which are behind the climate crisis.  That means electrification to some extent, for example in our transport system, and using alternatives to fossil fuels such as hydrogen to stop most emissions from cars and other vehicles.

Scotland absolutely needs to do all of these things, but we also need to think and act in much broader ways. Some 80 per cent of Scotland’s carbon footprint is made up of the impact of all those materials and products that I talked about earlier which are supplying our economy, half of which are coming from outside of Scotland.  So, we need to think seriously about what’s coming into our country and the supply and the transparency of those materials and what’s behind them in terms of energy and in terms of carbon.

Scottish Government’s pledge to end our nation’s contribution to the climate crisis by 2045 is fantastic. The government’s target of reaching net-zero by 2045 is also hugely significant and very ambitious. It’s a fantastic start towards ending our contribution to the climate emergency.  But the net-zero target really only addresses the emissions created within Scotland. So, it is only going to go half-way to our real objective of ending Scotland’s impact on the climate crisis. To do that we need to go beyond net-zero to tackle all those emissions from overseas too.

At the same time, we also need to think about what materials we are sending out of our country, about what’s happening to them and what impact are they having on other countries’ sustainability. Plastic is obviously the one that everybody has been talking about more and more over the past few years. We have been exporting the bulk of our plastic waste and nobody really knows where it ends up. Thanks to the veteran environmentalist and presenter Sir David Attenborough, we’re now aware of how we are contributing to the plastic problem on a global scale. We’ve seen how lots of plastic ends up in places that it should not be, whether that’s in the ocean or in the jungle, causing a massive negative environmental and social impact in other countries.

KF looking back to last year, can you tell us what you are most proud of from 2019?

IG: From an organisational point of view, I’m most proud of us launching our corporate plan and the journey that has taken us on. Going through that process of identifying what we needed to have in that plan meant we needed to work out how we needed to transform the business as well. So, part of our corporate plan covers how we need to adapt as an organisation to a real surge in interest in our agenda.  Not just from individuals and businesses but also public sector agencies, many people are much more aware of and engaged by different aspects of the climate emergency.  We recognise that we need to be working more smartly, working more with partners, empowering others to take action and letting partners see us in a more supportive role rather than just leading from the front.

Communicating how we are changing as an organisation was really important and I am pleased that when we launched our new plan last year we reaffirmed the agenda around consumption. We need to concentrate not just on recycling but also on all the things that we are also known for in terms of resource management.  Crucially, we need to address the overconsumption issue. To do that we need to engage with leaders across Scotland and also work at a global level to understand the worldwide impacts.

On the operational side, I think the thing that marked us out last year was the launch of Scotland’s Food Waste Reduction Action Plan. Catchy title, I know, but it’s vital to our ongoing work combating the climate crisis. If food waste was a country it would be the third biggest emitter of carbon after the US and China so it is highly significant here in Scotland and worldwide.

The action plan sets out how Scotland can meet the Scottish Government’s aim of reducing food waste by around a third (33 per cent) by 2025. We worked from 2018 to really understand what actions we need to put in place here in Scotland to make that happen, to make ideas a reality.  There are a number of things that we need both from a consumer point of view and a business and public sector viewpoint to measure food waste, and then act upon our findings. All that came together in our action plan which we launched with Scottish Government at the start of 2019. I think the plan was a bit different from previous things we’ve done at Zero Waste Scotland because the work on it involved a lot of other people. It’s not all about Zero Waste Scotland, there’s a role in that action plan for agencies including SEPA, local government, the Food Standards Agency, Scottish Government itself, the food and drink industries and other key leaders.

Coming back to the key point about overconsumption, we know that we import a lot of the food which we consume in Scotland.  That’s an opportunity in itself as we start thinking more about our own agriculture and how we make our food supply more sustainable and secure.  The launch of the plan was really significant for us, because it set out how we can achieve the 2025 target. More significantly, it identified all of the partners we have and brings together all the key players who are a part of this. Everyone understands that they have a role to play. This is everybody’s challenge and everybody’s opportunity to do something about food waste.

KF: Can you tell us a little bit about what you think and hope COP26 might achieve for you as an organisation.

IG: I think for us it goes back to our main ambition for 2020, to our absolute focus on the circular economy as a core solution to reducing the overconsumption behind the climate crisis. Reducing demand has to be a key part of the COP26 debate in Glasgow this November. If COP26 just rests on ‘Yeah, we need to think about our energy, about renewables and electrification of our bus fleet, et cetera’, that’s not enough.

All of those things are really important as I’ve stressed, but that’s only half the challenge.

We really need to not just start talking about but delivering on the circular economy, so we are using our limited resources sustainably, both here in Scotland and around the world.


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