by Iain Gulland, chief executive, Zero Waste Scotland

A lot can happen in the space of a minute.

Latest official figures show that every 60 seconds our nation exports around three tonnes of our waste, including plastic.

We shouldn’t be exporting plastic or any other waste for recycling elsewhere. It’s unacceptable that the mess we’re creating is being passed on to other countries where the environmental and social damage which that inflicts can be worse.

The single greatest cause of the climate crisis is all the materials, goods and services which we collectively produce, consume and too often throw out after just one use.

Anyone who is concerned about that is right to be.

We can and must all do much more to curtail this waste - and manage it ourselves - by making different choices.

As a nation, our number one goal should be to reduce the amount of needless materials, including plastic, which we use and waste in the first place. Achieving this means making better use of the plastic products we do need, by reprocessing them here in Scotland.

READ MORE: 'Unacceptable' - Scotland should not be exporting its waste elsewhere, says Zero Waste Scotland

That will not only significantly reduce waste and the emissions waste creates globally – it will also create much-needed, sustainable Scottish jobs. Exporting our waste means we’re exporting those valuable jobs prospects. So, this vast amount of wasted material should also be front and centre as we forge the green recovery to overcome COVID and the climate crisis.

A Scottish reprocessing industry will help to reduce the emissions currently generated by transporting our waste around the world. It will also produce valuable recycled material which can then be used to manufacture other products, creating new job opportunities and further reducing our demand for limited virgin materials.

The recent statistics from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) on the amount of waste we export covered 2018. We have made progress since then on reducing emissions from waste - largely down to reducing the volume of waste we produce and recycling more of it.

We’re getting closer to being able to deal with all our plastic waste here in Scotland. But we need to get there faster. The climate emergency remains the greatest challenge of our lifetime.


There are currently two companies in Scotland which already reprocess our plastic within our borders, while two more plants are under construction.

The UK government recently awarded £3m to one of the plants in development – a cutting-edge chemical recycling centre in Perthshire pioneering ways to reprocess a wide range of plastics that cannot currently be recycled using conventional methods. 

That project is a joint initiative involving plastic specialists Recycling Technologies, Neste – the world’s largest producer of renewable diesel – and Unilever. 

As Scotland’s circular economy experts, Zero Waste Scotland had invested in the site, but the involvement of a consumer goods giant like Unilever is a strong sign that big business is now getting on board too.

This is the green recovery which we urgently need nationally and globally – ‘building back better’ to eradicate waste and create sustainable, circular economy jobs which keep our limited resources in a ‘loop’ of use.

Scotland’s forthcoming Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) - due to go live in 2022 - brings the prospect of further plastics reprocessing opportunities within our borders.

It will deliver significant environmental and economic benefits, reducing waste and emissions and creating more ‘green’ jobs by providing a consistent supply of high-quality plastic for recycling.

Media reports covering the amount of waste we still export included calls to increase recycling capacity in Scotland. We do need greater capacity.

To that end, the Scottish Government recently pledged £70million from next April for expanding services for recycling plastic and other materials over the next five years. That will help bring Scotland closer to establishing consistent national household recycling services which are easy to use – so everyone, everywhere recycles.  But recycling alone is not enough.

As I stressed before, reducing demand for raw materials is far better for the planet than recycling. That means refusing anything we don’t need and reusing everything we do wherever possible.

Producers and retailers have the power to reduce the volume of single-use plastic items on sale – and therefore the volume which could end up overseas. Consumers can do their bit too by choosing reusable alternatives, such as cups, and putting pressure on brands to ditch needless single-use packaging.

Each of us should be asking ourselves every day whether we really need whatever we’re about to buy.

A lot can happen in a minute. And we have no time to waste.