Distance Learning

3rd July 2020

Web p12 14 iain gulland zws

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Pollution & Waste Management ,
  • Waste


Kevin Leather

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


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Latest environmental legislation round-up

Regulatory gaps between the EU and UK are beginning to appear, warns Neil Howe in this edition’s environmental legislation round-up

4th April 2024

Read more

Around 20% of the plastic recycled is polypropylene, but the diversity of products it protects has prevented safe reprocessing back into food packaging. Until now. David Burrows reports

3rd April 2024

Read more

A hangover from EU legislation, requirements on the need for consideration of nutrient neutrality for developments on many protected sites in England were nearly removed from the planning system in 2023.

2nd April 2024

Read more

Campaign group Wild Justice has accused the UK government of trying to relax pollution rules for housebuilders “through the backdoor”.

14th February 2024

Read more

Stella Consonni reports on the existing legal framework and the main challenges

15th January 2024

Read more

David Burrows on the stolen concept of a circular economy, and how reduction must be at the heart of product design

30th November 2023

Read more

Zero Waste Scotland is focused on closing the energy sector’s circularity gap. Kenny Taylor reports on progress so far

28th November 2023

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close