Full circle: Zero Waste Scotland on closing the energy sector’s circularity gap

28th November 2023


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

We live in a world of restricted natural resources, where population growth and consumption often rely on lengthy and volatile supply chains of raw materials, based on damaging extraction and production practices that lead to environmental impact.

A circular economy is part of the solution to the climate emergency, ensuring that nothing goes to waste and that everything has value. It is an all-encompassing approach to life and business, which can be explained as ‘make, use, remake’ rather than ‘make, use, dispose’.

We are still a long way from circular practices in Scotland, as shown in our Circularity Gap Report Scotland. High consumption, extensive extraction and a large emissions profile characterise the Scottish economy. The report revealed that Scotland’s state of circularity is only 1.3%, leaving a gap of 98.7%; the global average is 8.6%. This means that Scotland almost exclusively uses virgin resources to satisfy its residents’ needs and wants. The report scenario plans some routes for us to improve our status, including tapping into the potential of Scotland’s large-scale energy infrastructure, from power plants to offshore oil and gas platforms.

Circular decommissioning

However, to date, decommissioning of energy infrastructure has primarily followed a linear economy model, with little regard for social and environmental factors. Circular decommissioning will require substantial knowledge transfer, expertise and financial resources – in addition to new supply chains and collaboration between various actors, from regulators to operators. To realise Scotland’s energy transition ambitions, vast quantities of materials will be required to build and deploy infrastructure. As the Scottish government’s principal adviser on moving towards a circular economy, we have been leading efforts to systematically quantify material impacts and identify circular opportunities across Scotland’s energy transition and are building a suite of evidence illustrating that change is needed.

We have published a range of reports, evidencing circularity for energy infrastructure, including: Circular Steel in Scotland (2023), Energy Infrastructure Materials Mapping (2023), Scotland’s Ports: A Future Vision (2022), The Future of Onshore Wind Decommissioning in Scotland (2021), and – in partnership with offshore renewable energy research centre ORE Catapult – End of Life Materials Mapping for Offshore Wind in Scotland (2022).

Energy Infrastructure Materials Mapping quantifies 12 ‘selected’ materials (see Figure 1) that can be generated from energy infrastructure decommissioning, and those required to deploy multiple technology ambitions.

Figure 1

The report forecasts an increase from an established baseline of 65 million tonnes (Mt) of consumed material across the energy sector in 2018 to over 240Mt by 2050. This is a 12% rise1 year on year to 2050, with a potentially far greater short-term increase in the coming decade as we ramp up onshore wind deployment, develop ScotWind offshore wind farms and build up the hydrogen and electric vehicle sectors.

Reading from the right of Figure 1, caveated quantities of decommissioned infrastructure material flow into the technologies and associated materials we are likely to need to deploy to meet our net-zero ambitions (illustrated on the left). In some instances, we are close to fulfilling our requirements. However, the competition among technologies and the shortfall in key materials illustrates the shaky ground on which development ambition finds itself. Apart from concrete, the materials for the energy infrastructure under investigation in this report are mostly extracted outside Europe and processed outside the UK, exposing the sector to potentially volatile and lengthy supply chains.

The report highlights evidence of the reuse of materials and components. However, refurbished components are often exported. Reuse is preferred to end-of-life treatment, but when reuse is outside Scotland, it does not support a circular economy, as material is leaked from the Scottish economy. This is particularly pertinent for materials such as neodymium, where limited open exchange trade means there are significant supply chain risks.

Steel has drawn significant press interest of late – rightly so, as iron to steel, fuelled by coal, has been the driving force behind our industrial revolution. You could argue that this metal has contributed significantly to our current climate change challenge. Shouldn’t its future be about contributing solutions?

Scotland produces between 620 and 930 kilotonnes per annum (ktpa) of domestic scrap steel, which is currently exported. Theoretically, we could have access to as much as 1,216kt of additional steel over the next 10 years from decommissioned North Sea oil and gas platforms.

We have demonstrated in our findings that there are sufficient steel mass arisings and enough scrap steel in Scotland to fulfil new electric arc furnace steel production for offshore wind, using a combination of domestic and decommissioned scrap, assuming that decommissioning in Scotland is scaled up sufficiently and that the infrastructure for collecting/sorting the scrap steel already exists.

Sustainable steel

Our findings are largely supported by Green Alliance in its 2023 report, A Brighter Future for UK Steel. However, I was struck by two key points that are fundamental to sustainable steel – demand reduction linked to more efficient use, and reuse options. Green Alliance argues that “better use of steel in the UK and elsewhere could reduce embedded carbon by 14% and cut emissions from the domestic steel industry by an estimated 6% in 2030”, and that recycled steel beam is around 10 times more carbon-intensive than a reused beam. More and more companies are keen to track materials throughout their life, boosting their own ESG targets.

Turning from materials to services, the energy transition will not happen without our ports. Ports provide a range of services, handling both customers and products, as well as offering space and logistics. This includes delivering on net zero – for example, off-shore energy facilities. Ports are demonstrating principles embedded in Scotland’s Ports as value-creation hubs and exemplifying ‘place’ settings.

We ask port authorities to go further and apply circular economy business models by demonstrating capability in disassembly and resupply, exemplifying strategically located circular logistic business hubs, and providing rental and leasing asset models. The harnessing of circular opportunities must be led by Scottish ports, which have the ingenuity, ambition and skills to deliver circular approaches.

We will have to overcome complex challenges as we manage the materials needed for the energy transition. We want to see a step change in the approaches taken by energy infrastructure stakeholders, moving from linear to circular materials flows. This must include:

  • Designing for reuse and remanufacture​
  • Identifying opportunities for keeping materials and assets in perpetual use​
  • Realising value in circularity
  • Reducing emissions
  • Changing behaviour in favour of sustainable practices.

We want to help facilitate that step change. Our role now is to inform and work with partners such as Decom Mission, Scottish Renewables and the Scottish government to see change at a supply chain and national policy level.


1 The 241 Mt of virgin materials needed for energy infrastructure by 2050 is the total amount of materials needed from 2020-2050, not the amount consumed yearly, which varies over time in the model; it both ramps up with energy demand over time and is suppressed by increasing decommissioning and material cycling activities.

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