Pioneering a Materials Revolution

2nd February 2021

Events in 2020 starkly illustrated the need for collaboration and co-operation to tackle global challenges.  The scale of the climate ‘emergency’ and the associated need for investment is evidenced in the UK Government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, published in November 2020.  The plan focuses heavily on the energy transition – including offshore wind, hydrogen, zero emission vehicles and greener buildings.  Whilst there is no overt reference to resource efficiency, the National Infrastructure Strategy highlights the opportunities to embed resource efficiency across our commercial and industrial activities and in so doing, reduce carbon emissions. 

Policies and action such as: extending the responsibilities of waste producers; introducing deposit return schemes; and the use of digital technology to track waste feed into a ‘high-tech circular economy’ where the use of extracted materials is reduced.  Resources and products are retained at their highest value as opposed to the linear consumption model of take, make, and dispose.

Scotland has reiterated its continued commitment to deliver Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 through the Government’s Climate Change Plan update.  The report estimates 80% of global emissions are currently linked to the production, consumption and disposal of products and resources to meet society’s needs.  The disposal element is significant, one in every five tonnes of material flowing though the Scottish economy is defined as ‘waste’.

If Scotland is to reduce this waste and realise the economic dividend, we must invest in workforce skills and education.  The opportunity is highlighted in The Future of Work report from Zero Waste Scotland.  It describes the range and types of jobs that can be created by a shift to a circular economy, which already employs 8.2% of the Scottish workforce.  The Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan set out a framework for ‘green’ skills and education to build a zero-carbon economy with the recent Scottish Government budget proposing to establish a Green Jobs Fund to drive green economic recovery.

Whilst the pathways to a truly global and scaled circular economy are expanding, it will take time to shift to this new operating model.  The amount of waste generated in our rapidly growing cities will almost double to 3.5 billion tonnes per annum by 2050 (source: World Bank).  Globally, over 60% of this material will end its life in landfill, waste dump or leak into the environment. 

We must all act to reduce this significant waste of natural resources.  If we do not, the social, environmental, and economic penalties are irrevocable.    

Serving thirteen years on the board of Scotland’s largest recycling and resource management company, I dealt with such challenges every day.   With strong purpose, entrepreneurial leadership and innovation we viewed waste as a resource and supported customers on the journey to zero waste, well before the term was widely adopted. 

I therefore believe that the vast global industry that collects, moves, recovers, processes, treats and disposes of this material, from multinationals to communities of ‘waste pickers’, has a key role to play in the transition to a circular economy.  At a basic level, the industry needs to collect better data to provide insights that will enable and support new business models, incentives and approaches to waste recovery and recycling.  This will involve greater investment in digital technologies from apps to smart labels, sensors and analytics which can improve efficiencies, transparency, and materials recovery.  

We are fortunate in Scotland to be home to a globally recognised ‘wastetech’ company leading this shift in the use and management of waste materials at scale.  Topolytics, based in Edinburgh, is a data aggregation and analytics business with an ambitious aim to make the world’s waste visible, verifiable and valuable.  The company’s platform WasteMap® ingests detailed data on waste from different sources and formats and applies machine learning and data science to overcome the inaccuracies and data vacuums that currently hinder greater resource recovery globally.  WasteMap® is at the centre of the UK Government’s prototype system that will digitally track all the UK’s waste. The company is building an international ecosystem of data partners and customers.  

A new approach to materials and the circular economy will be a key strand of November’s COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow.  Scotland has plenty to offer and to deliver through collaborative action and policy at a national, local and community level.  Digital technologies are a vital part of the showcase of solutions including Topolytics and its work with partners including SAP, Brewdog, Coca-Cola and DS Smith to understand and act on enhanced knowledge of waste material flows.

When thinking about the green recovery and transition to Net Zero, we need a fundamental shift in energy generation and use but we must also prioritise resource efficiency and greater recovery of waste.  It is a global challenge that creates its own unique problems but as outlined, has a significant role to play when tackling climate change.

Scotland was a pioneer of the Industrial Revolution.  It now has an opportunity, and arguably an obligation, to pioneer the global “Materials Revolution”.

Jane Stewart is a Non-Executive Director of Topolytics and IFB, Chair of the Circular Economy Investment Fund and an Ambassador for Women’s Enterprise Scotland

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