Scotland’s Sustainable Shift: A Circular Economy for Manufacturing

Transforming manufacturing in Scotland

Engineer and business leader, Sandy Rodger, together with the Zero Waste Scotland team, looks at the wide range of benefits that Scotland could glean from adopting a circular economy approach to manufacturing

The Scottish Government is determined to accelerate Scotland’s strength in manufacturing with the Manufacturing Future for Scotland strategy, launched by the First Minister in February 2016. Reinvigorating manufacturing in the 21st century cannot, however, mean a return to Victorian smokestacks. Rather, a new approach is needed.

Making things which last a long time, using materials that last a long time, and promoting a manufacturing sector that is using and re-using resources, is better for the economy, good for jobs, gives Scotland a competitive edge, and is good for the environment too. Is the circular economy Scotland’s answer? After all, this innovative approach has already been recognised with multiple awards across the globe.

The circular economy replaces the ‘take-make-dispose’, or linear system, that has been built up since the industrial revolution, which uses many valuable resources just once before they become waste. Instead, renewable resources, such as biological materials, are kept flowing through the economy, returning nutrients back to the soil after each use. In addition to this, the finite stocks of materials like metals and plastics are kept in multiple cycles of re-use, rather than becoming waste.

It is very much a business-led approach, about innovation both in the physical products produced and their supply chains, and in new business models which change customers’ ways of using and disposing of products. Government is a vital enabler and catalyst, and nowhere more so than in Scotland, but only business can turn each linear supply chain into a circular one.

As an engineer, I focus on the practical challenges of the circular economy, the physical requirements to get products and materials into circular flows. I try to get businesses to think alternately about the broader system change, and the sharp realities of finding specific customers with specific products. It is hard to generalise, after all every industry has its own materials and products, and so its own circular economy models to develop. Some completely new business models and supply chains will emerge.

For those of us in today’s manufacturing, there are three overarching themes:
• Re-engineering global supply chains – with a new view of scale. Many supply chains today are global. Mined in Australia, manufactured in China, distributed to customers everywhere, and becoming waste, everywhere. The upstream stages operate at global scale. Suppose, however, that we go circular. Now this becomes the supply chain only for the first-time manufacture, followed by re-use, repair, remanufacture, recycling, each cycle passing through the customer’s hands. The centre of activity shifts towards the customer, with many of the ‘re’ stages localised. Some are new processes, others familiar but needing to be economical at a smaller scale. Scotland has a remanufacturing hub, but this is only the start.

• Systems thinking driving design. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy project, which I started in 2014, addresses a broken system, that being plastic packaging. Manufacturers supply packaging standing almost no chance of being recycled. Municipal waste systems catch whatever lands in their bins, and struggle to achieve better than landfill or incineration. The result is that today, 98 per cent of plastic packaging is made from virgin materials. This represents a failure to think of the system as a whole and a huge failure of design. The circular economy is critically about design and in particular answers ‘what’s next?’. What happens to products after use? Manufacturing businesses can take a lead in such new design thinking, a challenge as engineers, and also as leaders and influencers.

• From random waste to pure raw materials. Manufacturing businesses are used to controlling raw materials, achieving consistent quality despite base materials, from mines and fields, which are naturally mixed and diluted. Now there is a new source, the stuff that is wrongly labelled as waste. This is the mine of the future, and exactly the same principles apply. Plus, we have at least some influence over what goes into ‘waste’, which materials, and even segregating discrete products and components for re-use. So, we need to develop, produce, and implement technology to extract and separate products and materials, and at the same time design products to keep things separate in the first place.

Overall, the circular economy is a source of great optimism. It is a better model for the industrial system as a whole and it invites rejuvenation of manufacturing, especially in Scotland. If we are proud of manufacturing, this is an open goal.

Veracity, the Prestwick-based manufacturers of IP-video surveillance products have, at their core, really clever systems thinking. By understanding the unique way in which video data is generated, they significantly reduce the number of active disks in their storage solution. So the whole system is cooler. So it’s more reliable. So it lasts longer. So more of the components will be re-usable if they come back for refurbishment (they last so long this hasn’t happened yet!) And their transmission equipment is specifically designed to re-use existing embedded cabling, extending the life of the cables and the building materials which would need to be ripped out to run new ones. All this brings tangible cost and reliability benefits to the customer. Truly a great example of making things last!

Zero Waste Scotland
Services: Supporting innovative and disruptive manufacturing projects for a circular economy future

Author – Sandy Rodger, together with the Zero Waste Scotland team. Sandy is an engineer and business leader, formerly with Unilever and Diageo, now focused on the circular economy. He has worked with multinationals, SMEs, government, and international organisations, on five continents.