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3rd July 2020

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David Burrows speaks to Iain Gulland about Zero Waste Scotland's progress on carbon emissions, on the day its home working report was released

On March 16, Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) began home working in response to COVID-19. Its environmental analysts crunched the numbers and discovered that with no commuting or corporate travel, and after accounting for one-off investments in home office equipment, ZWS's emissions had fallen by 25% in the first two weeks of lockdown compared to the previous period last year. If home working continued after lockdown, the average daily emissions for its 150-or-so staff would drop by 73% compared to business-as-usual. This is an enticing proposition for an organisation created to “show leadership“ on everything from carbon emissions to the circular economy. It was a bit of a “wow“ moment, admits Iain Gulland, chief executive of ZWS, on the day the data was released.

Deloitte experts think the pandemic has brought about a “five-year acceleration“ of the remote working trend. Some may jump at the chance to avoid the commute – according to the TUC, 59 minutes for the average UK worker – beyond the lockdown. Others will be keen to re-establish relationships with colleagues (and, in some cases, craving social distance from their family). This is why Gulland is careful not to get carried away. “I say to my staff – and I am very clear about this – that this period is not 'working from home'; this is 'at home in a pandemic, trying to work'.“

Humans are, of course, social by nature, and little is known about the impact of remote working on mental and physical wellbeing, morale and productivity. We also need better understanding of our ability to network or collaborate effectively (what Gulland calls “meetings in the margins“) when we are not in the same room. “It's been difficult, but we seem to be coping quite well,“ Gulland says. I sense that he is, like many chief executives, weighing up the pros and cons of this huge enforced working pattern project. Motivating staff remotely is more challenging, he admits, but “it has made me think about what our future looks like in terms of operations.“ If home working continued after lockdown, the average daily emissions for Zero Waste Scotland's 150-or-so staff would drop by 73%

Thought leadership

ZWS's remit is to lead Scotland to use products and resources responsibly, focusing on the biggest impacts in relation to climate change. Initially, it was part of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), with Gulland director of Scotland, but it was spun off in 2014. Unlike its English sister organisation, which became a charity, is fully funded by the Scottish Government and the European Regional Development Fund. Its role has also changed – from a delivery body for policies the government had already (to some extent) designed, to policy influencer and, in Gulland's words, “thought leader“. It was ZWS, for example, that delivered the business case and consultation that paved the way for a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers.

The DRS has taken a long road, but in May the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of the scheme; consumers buying a drink in a single-use container will pay a 20p deposit, which is then refunded when the bottle or can is returned for recycling. ZWS reckons 90% of the containers included in the DRS (covering PET plastic, metal and glass) will be captured for recycling across 17,000 return points nationwide. Some 4m tonnes of CO2eq will be saved over 25 years.

The approach has its critics, though, and in March, Scotland's environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced that the 'go-live' date had been pushed back to help businesses prepare their premises. This would also provide “flexibility in the immediate term as the whole country prepares to deal with COVID-19“, according to Cunningham. With Scotland already having delayed its 2021 ban on landfilling biodegradable municipal waste until 2025, the postponement of another flagship environmental policy seemed politically unpalatable. However, a new date of July 2022, rather than April 2021, will still put it ahead of England's 2023 target (though there are arguments for starting schemes across the nations simultaneously, for example to avoid cross-border fraud).

In the circumstances, Gulland feels the decision was “only right“. But is he worried that politicians will use the pandemic to pull back other policies, rather than push them on? Take plastic – a material that a few months ago was a sinner, but is now billed in some quarters as a saviour. The UK government has delayed its ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds “given the huge challenges posed to businesses by coronavirus“. Ministers waved away claims that plastic industry lobbying had forced them to act, but COVID-19 has been manna from heaven for pro-plastics groups: the perfect vector for spreading the story that single-use is more hygienic.

To Gulland that's all it is – a story. If studies are needed, ZWS is ready to do them, but Gulland's team is yet to see anything that would suggest single-use is safer than reusables in relation to COVID-19 spread. “Where is the evidence?“ he asks. “There is a perception, and you could argue that's what has been created.“

Could this undo some of the work done during the past two years to reduce single-use packaging and recycle more of what's left? “We have to be careful,“ says Gulland – but he certainly doesn't feel the issue will fall by the wayside, even for sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality. He argues that, rather than showing we need more single-use, this crisis has demonstrated how better management of resources could make us more resilient.

“I don't want to use COVID-19 and opportunity in the same sentence, but look at the NHS,“ he explains. “We have been working with it for two years on the opportunities for circular economy thinking. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitisers have become critical materials. We are seeing what happens when you have a finite resource – and that's what the earth is facing.“ Gulland's passion shines through as he talks about refillable hand sanitisers and using “repurposed plastic“ in PPE. He feels that the circular economy was seen as advantageous before COVID-19 but is even more so now. “People will think about supply chains quite differently..

“PPE and hand sanitisers have become critical materials. We are seeing what happens when you have a finite resource“

Responsible consumption

Consumption of products and materials accounts for an estimated 74% of Scotland's carbon footprint. One of the four strategic outcomes in ZWS's corporate plan is “responsible consumption“. The ambition is a nation where “people and businesses demand products and services in ways that respect the limits of our natural resources“. But how do you square that with the go-to economic recovery model of 'buying more stuff'? Gulland admits that talking about sustainable consumption and building back better does feel a bit like “waxing lyrical“, but he truly believes that change is coming – and that Scotland is well placed to “leap forward“. He talks of the “real determination“ among the ministers he works with (Scotland has committed to become a net-zero society by 2045) and doesn't see any sign of that changing. Those in the private sector, too, were already showing “huge appetite“ to respond to the political targets around climate change and resource use. A circular economy could save businesses in Scotland £3bn per year, according to ZWS research, while circular actions could eradicate up to almost a fifth of the nation's carbon footprint by 2050.

The groundwork that shows what's possible has already been done, says Gulland, citing businesses ZWS has worked with. There are 200 of these businesses and counting, covering everything from upcycled furniture and refurbished computers to palm oil alternatives made from spent coffee grounds. One company has even shifted from selling its light fixtures to leasing them. He suggests that there will be more invective to innovate now, not less. “I think people will fear disruption less.“

COVID-19 has brought massive disruption across society, but people and businesses are adapting. “I think we genuinely have a coalition of not just the willing, but the acting. It'll be hard for them to go back and say, 'let's just park that', as they're already on the journey.“ And for Gulland, this is not just about starting again. “We spent a lot of time on our own net-zero plan but following the results from the remote working research I think we could be more ambitious. I like to think most leaders, businesses and governments think 'wow' – that this is not just a chance to build back better but leap forward.“.

David Burrows is a researcher and freelance writer

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