Robin McAlpine – Waste is resource used badly

Why is it that in the climate emergency we are fighting our political class every step of the way, and they are fighting the corner of business?

Robin McAlpine is the director of the Scottish think and do tank Common Weal.

Cross-posted from Common Weal


It is truly an ill wind that blows no-one any good. And one of the illest of all winds blowing through Scotland today is our attitude to waste. There is really not much good to say about it.

Yes, we’re recycling a bit more, yes we’re taking tiny steps (constantly delayed at the behest of big business) to reduce our use of harmful materials. But this is a drop in the ocean both domestically and globally. 

And it really, really doesn’t need to be like this. There’s an alternative that it is pretty easy to prove is popular – and yet the vested interests try to prevent it happening.

So let’s get to grip with what waste really means. First, it is depleting natural resources at an alarming rate. A major part of the real reason that the US seems determined to manufacture a war with China is because China has been clever in how it has made deals with the parts of the world where our mineral resources come from (especially Africa which now sells the majority of its minerals to China).

The West is at real risk of running out of access to some of these resources. So is China, because we all will. But the myopic mindset of waste is that if the US runs out first, China becomes dominant. Hence war (which is almost always about either identity or resources).

In Scotland waste is turning into a criminal activity. The ludicrous ease with which anyone can register as a ‘licensed waste collector’ (George Monbiot successfully registered his goldfish under similar regulations in England) is an invitation to crime.

Now gangsters can flash their license, take away hazardous waste, drop it where they wish and make clear to anyone who reports them that there will be nasty consequences for doing so.

Plastic waste is now found in the bodies of most of the world’s species, and most of the plastic waste we’ve produced is still to make its way there. It will. Sewage waste is being dumped in Scottish rivers at an unprecedented rate and no-one is doing anything serious about it – so rivers are dying.

Chemical and industrial waste pollutes land. Much of the carbon dioxide we emit is basically waste (the bit of something else you don’t want so throw away) and we know what that is doing. 

And then there is the straightforward, soul-destroying littering that plagues both our urban and rural areas, a symptom of a culture of utter selfishness where you don’t need to go to a bin and dispose properly of your rubbish because ‘you’re worth it’ and ‘life is too short’. Convincing you that this is true, that you and your time are worth so much that you can destroy at will – that is the true achievement of the consumerist age.

To turn this around we require to take only one step – which isn’t getting rid of waste but getting rid of the idea of waste. Because waste isn’t waste, waste is resource, resource we used badly.

In fact our idea of waste, a material you have no use for that must be got rid of, is recent in human civilisation. Before the late industrial revolution no-one (not even the rich) threw away things that could still be useful. And before the advent of modern advertising waste was associated with guilt, not self-celebration.

Metals objects had long lives and were reused, fabrics were repaired and eventually composted, food waste all composted, construction materials were reused again and again, only ceramics (pottery) was really ‘thrown away’ – but that just meant returning to the dust from which they were originally manufactured.

Which is to say that the ‘circular economy’ is not something we need to invent, the brief era of waste is something we need to escape.

Common Weal has explained many times how we can do this, not here and there but systematically. We presented our model to the recent Climate Assembly and it got overwhelming support, key aspects making it into a prominent place in the final report.

It would involve changing what we make things with (especially moving to bioplastics and wood-based construction). It would involve borrowing or leasing things rather than buying them when you only use them occasionally. It would involve using the component parts of things to make other things.

We explain it as a series of loops which all loop back to a different way to do things. Design better, use better materials and invest in the technologies which make this possible. Then borrow or lease what you can, reuse what you can, repair what you can, remanufacture what you can, compost what you can – only leaving each loop when you have exhausted the possibilities of the previous loop.

And then, at the end, anything left – recycle it. Recycling is failure, the failure to use resources well. The better we get at this, the less we need to recycle.

That kind of economy would save you a lot of money and improve the quality of the products that you use every day. It would improve the buildings we build, the ways we travel. It would save our environment and end the constant criminality associated with waste.

And it offers Scotland a phenomenal opportunity to reindustrialise. We are in an incredibly privileged position in Scotland because our abundance of land and energy mean we can pioneer new material manufacturing and, on the back of that, much more manufacturing of high-quality, responsible goods and services.

Of course this threatens big business because big businesses makes their enormous profits because society pays to deal with their waste. It wants us to throw things away and buy another one, not only when we need to but especially when we don’t. It has lobbied hard against the mildest of measures like a deposit return scheme.

Sadly the Scottish Government seems to be doing as little as it possibly can. It delays, misses targets which were already insufficient and makes tokenistic moves where real change is needed. 

So when the Climate Assembly proposes major investment in ‘resource libraries’ (from where you can borrow and lease), Scottish Government proposes spending a paltry £300,000 meaning that it is “the intention” that in three years there will be one of them per 50,000 people. And far from a ‘green industrial revolution’ we’re going to send our plastic waste to England to generate jobs there.

It is a tragedy that humans seem unable to retain proper awareness of more than one crisis at a time. The horrors of the BBC’s Blue Planet and the way we are killing species with our plastic waste seems an awful long time ago now. Little has been done – most people seem to think petrochemical plastics will be here forever. 

That is what happens when there is no political leadership; nothing happens. So waste will continue to blow its ill wind until its too late and future academics fall out with each other over what plaque to put on the monuments to industry to better reflect how we destroyed so wantonly.

Or we do something serious. The choice is ours.

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