The circular economy is tiny in Scotland –  only 1.3% of the whole economy, compared with almost a quarter in the Netherlands – but there are still places where it is possible to see it in action.

At one of these, the Edinburgh Remakery in Leith, Olivia, an e-waste operative, was stripping down a laptop while, across town, at the Scottish parliament, the Circular Economy Bill was being debated last week.

At the same time as Scottish Greens minister Lorna Slater was describing the need to “deliver a fundamental shift across society to reduce the demand for raw materials and to encourage reuse, repairs and recycling”, Olivia was removing gold-streaked motherboards and putting them into a box to send to the Royal Mint.

 “Why, would you put that into landfill?” asked Remakery CEO Elaine Brown. “The Royal Mint extract all the metals and they use the gold and we get paid for the gold. Would you really put gold into landfill?”

There is a long way for Scotland to go in order to become circular and become low waste. A Zero Waste Scotland report has suggested that Scotland’s per capita material footprint is nearly double the global average.

Some  MSPs have said they want the bill to be more ambitious, and campaigners have called for  targets on reduction of consumption to be included. Among them is Kim Pratt, Friends of the Earth’s circular economy campaigner, who said: “Around half of Scotland’s emissions are not tackled by our existing climate targets because they don’t include imports. If consumption targets were brought in under the new circular economy law, Scotland would finally start taking responsibility for its global impact.”

Nevertheless, circularity as an approach, or a lifestyle, is already growing - from the repair movement to tool libraries, and from companies ground-breaking companies like ReBlade, transforming old wind turbine blades into state-of-the-art shelters, to Jaw Brew, whose beer is made from leftover bread.

The Herald: A repair cafe at Edinburgh RemakeryA repair cafe at Edinburgh Remakery (Image: Edinburgh Remakery)

One of the best ways to understand the potential of circularity – and also what may be right or wrong about the bill - is to talk with those who already live it. These are people who talk of “hierarchies of waste” and extoll the need to keep materials as high as possible on that ladder. Often the words they use are not ‘circular economy’ but ‘repair’, ‘reuse’, ‘share’ and ‘upcycle’.

Few names are quite so linked with low-waste campaigning than the woman behind the Less Waste Laura Instagram account, Laura Young. Probably most well known for her campaigning against disposable vapes, Ms Young is interested in the multitude of ways in which we can reduce waste, and create a  circular economy. At a recent event in which she was awarded Scottish social influencer of the year, she wore a rented black dress.

“First and foremost,” said Ms Young, “we are on a finite planet so we need to be using resources really wisely and right now we are not. We are creating so much consumption, particularly of single use items or things that we throw away after just a few uses. It’s really important from a materials perspective to be careful with how much we use. We’re also creating way too much waste and that’s obviously having an environmental impact.”

Already, there are social enterprises, businesses and individuals trying to intervene in and break that throwaway cycle. Some, like Simon Cook of  ReSet Scenery,  are driven by the waste they have seen in their own lives or sectors – in his case the astonishing amount of theatre, film and television set waste that ended in landfill.

Mr Cook, a scene fabricator working chiefly in theatre, who created ReSet with a colleague, Matt Doolan, recalled his growing discomfort at the quantities discarded, when the recent boom in film industry in Scotland, sent rates up from about 450 tonnes annually in 2016, to, he estimates,  around 4500 tonnes now.

The Herald: ReSet Scenery created the stage for a reuse fashion showcase outside the Scottish parliamentReSet Scenery created the stage for a reuse fashion showcase outside the Scottish parliament (Image: Iain Maclean/Friends of the Earth)

“We were,” he said, “always aware that what we were making was destined for the bin. We were making fabulous scenery that would go on stage or go on a film and at the end of the production run it would always get skipped. It could be quite distressing.”

“But with this acceleration, it was becoming somewhat unconscionable because we were bringing materials from as far away as Malaysia. These materials have a 25-year lifespan but if it’s a stage play you might get six weeks out of it before it was skipped and sent to landfill. For film, about the same.”

What they did was set up a warehouse space and circular marketplace for the materials and began capturing the industry’s waste. “At the end of a production run  we intervene and try to position our selves between the company and the skip. We assess, find out what’s reusable, and what is not reusable and try to deconstruct it to get as many materials from it as possible.”

Their process on average manages to take what would be eight tonnes of general waste and turn it into seven tonnes of reused, reclaimed or recycled materials, and only one tonne of unrecyclable mixed waste at the end.

Mr Cook said that what he believes is missing from the circular economy bill at the moment is “proactive legislation to encourage those companies that still won’t or can’t yet change.”

What ReSet does is similar to a process carried out at the Edinburgh  Remakery. Laptops and other digital devices arrive at its workshop either through a business waste scheme, or by public donation in Remakery tech disposal boxes, of which there are 19 around Edinburgh.

Some devices are refurbished, to be sold in their shop; others are taken apart and stripped down. “Tech waste,” said CEO Elaine Brown, “is the largest growing waste stream and it’s hugely damaging to our planet. There are also  finite resources within the tech. What we’re trying to do is encourage people to do the right thing with their tech.”

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“Our tech boxes are all about individuals being able to donate their tech in an ethical way. Not only does this help the environment,  but we’re also together helping to eradicate digital poverty – because we gift a proportion back to the community.” In 2023 the Remakery donated 452 devices to people facing digital poverty.  Their tech boxes saved 2,280 devices in a year and prevented 311,548 kg of CO2 emissions.

The Remakery also hosts free repair cafes Friday mornings, which offer the opportunity to be helped through repairing an item –  not just for fixing tech hardware, but also clothes, for  clothing is a key contributor to carbon emissions and waste of materials.

In the recent parliamentary debate, Edward Mountain, chair of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport committee, noted that a circular economy would require more support for charities and social enterprises that promote reuse and repair.

Ms Brown expressed her disappointment  at the speed of progress on the circular economy. “Three years ago I sat on a consultation for the circular economy bill and three years on we’re still faffing about with it.”

“The bill frustrates me because it’s not ambitious enough. We need really strong targets on material consumption and what we really need is to stop talking about recycling. To me recycling is the first point of failure in the waste hierarchy. When we’re starting to recycle we’ve lost already.”

She pointed to shelves of textiles, all saved from landfill: “We are all about repair, reuse, rethink. We don’t mention the word recycle. I think the circular economy bill is  not pushing repair and reuse high enough up.”

The Herald: Reuse fashion showcase outside the Scottish parliamentReuse fashion showcase outside the Scottish parliament (Image: Iain Maclean/Friends of the Earth Scotland)

The Remakery’s repair cafes and workshops are part of a growing phenomenon of sharing skills, sometimes purely in a pursuit of a mend, but also sometimes as a creative act of upcycling. The results of some of these projects were on display at a recent ‘reuse fashion showcase’ held outside the Scottish Parliament.

Among those involved was Mary Morton, who volunteers as a sewing teacher for SHRUB Coop, set up by students to combat the waste from university life.

Morton got involved when she retired and started volunteering for SHRUB’s end of term collections at halls of residence, sorting through the things that students didn’t need or couldn’t take home.

She noticed how SHRUB would assign a carbon value to things, and that, she recalled, “the carbon footprint of textiles is much much higher than most of the other items that were being collected”.

“I’ve always been a sewer and a mender. SHRUB were already running sewing sessions once a week where people were dropping in with whatever garment they had that needed a repair. And learning how to do it for themselves. I thought that sounds ideal, exactly the kind of skills I could pass onto younger people.”

The Herald: Mary Morton at the reuse fashion showcaseMary Morton at the reuse fashion showcase (Image: Iain Maclean/Friends of the Earth Scotland)

“Who comes?” she said. “Mostly young people, but not exclusively young people. Often it’s people who have got absolutely no sewing skill at all.”

Alongside repair cafes and workshop, tool libraries are another increasingly popular circular economy service. An advocate of these, is Laura Young, who has borrowed numerous items including a drill and a dehumidifier. 

"I think," she said, "the average lifespan of an electric drill is actually only 13 minutes because you use it for 10-15 seconds and then you put it way in the cupboard for a few more years.”

Such libraries, she said, show how the circular economy can have benefits beyond the reduction of carbon footprint and material waste. “There’s also a money-saving aspect and a community aspect. You can go along and borrow a power drill instead of having to buy it. It saves you money but also you get to meet people in your community and be part of a sharing network. It’s great for social cohesion.”