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Following the Scots’ Green Horizons


It’s a wee bit of a country with the heart of a lion in its pursuit of Zero Waste.  The Scottish government has created a non-profit company called “Zero Waste Scotland” and funded it with $90 million (US) for the current three year plan. If that isn’t impressive enough for a country of only 5 million people, they are also leading the world in the start-up, management, training and support of social enterprises.  They are blending the power of the marketplace with community responsibility.

I was invited to keynote the Scottish Resources Conference recently, which was a national gathering focused on the Circular Economy.  I shared this honor with the Environmental Minister of Scotland, as well as the co-founder of the ecological footprint concept, Mathis Wackernagel.  Everyone spoke for two days about the urgency of disrupting business-as-usual practices to address the social and environmental problems the world is confronting.  Everywhere I go they are having this discussion, and it’s an honor to be a part of it.

Info-graphic of speech

Info-graphic summary of Eric’s keynote speech at the 2016 Scottish Resources Conference.

The discussion topics were ideas and proposals that we might all anticipate.  What impressed me, though, was the sincere and collaborative process evidenced in their discussions.  Clearly this is a small group of people that know and respect each other, and care about the collective outcome of their work.  I gained a renewed appreciation for how “scale” impacts the pursuit of progress, and how our immensity in America makes our work for change even harder.

An important take-away for me was how the Scots are looking toward the “social enterprise sector” to create innovative new ways of implementing change in the waste industry.  They seem to understand that the large rubbish companies, as they call them, will follow orders from the top (i.e. regulations) but do little more.  They know that the small “double-bottom-line” mission-driven private enterprises are the ones to best pursue high-risk, low-return Zero Waste programs for the sake of demonstrating the environmental benefits and jobs creation potential.  This appears especially important in the rural areas, called the Highlands and Islands, where community economic vitality is waning and the young people are flocking into the two big cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh.  The Scottish social enterprise sector is actively growing and demonstrating job creation and environmental protection.  I was, and am, so impressed with the green community horizons of these folks!

I visited several wonderful social enterprises that were pushing the limits on reuse for carpets, furniture, white goods, child goods, and even a complete building rehabilitation project into a community center in an economically depressed town.  The goals in each case were to create jobs, provide skills development and training, and keep stuff out of the landfill… in that order.

The take-away I think they received from me, as I was told, was the idea of active citizen engagement in the government formulation of public policy.  The Scottish landfill diversion rate is a respectable 44%, but they’re feeling stuck in many communities.  I shared my career experiences of organizing the public around Zero Waste goals and working with, even pushing upon, the policymakers whom they have elected to lead them.  I wasn’t being radical, but in this polite society my exhortations about “people power” did come off as a bit of American brashness, which they appeared to appreciate.  Then again, maybe they were just being polite?

The bottom-line in Scotland appears to be the double-bottom-line – where the government realizes that it alone can’t fix all of the environmental and social problems that exist, and that the for-profit sector won’t do it (and we shouldn’t expect them to) unless they are paid.  Along these lines it is interesting to note that they are updating their government procurement process so that it financially rewards “social value” in any contract negotiated with public funds.

Three years ago the U.K. government passed legislation called The Social Value Act which mandates that all government bids must require and score points for social value offered.  While it is early days as they struggle to figure out how best to implement it, this was the most interesting and revolutionary step forward I learned about.  Imagine the outcome of these new procurement rules – the local green company winning the contract for community services even if it isn’t the lowest bid financially.  There’s a lesson for America in this, and we need to stay tuned to Scotland as they redefine community value as it relates to the waste industry.

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This blog originally ran on Waste 360

Eric Lombardi is the Director of Eco-Cycle International (www.EcocycleSolutionsHub.org) and is recognized as an authority on the social and technical aspects of creating community-based “Zero Waste” resource recovery programs.

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