Scotland’s Road to Circularity and Its Water Utility’s Sustainability Story

Scotland has set a legally binding target to hit net zero emissions by 2045, with the government boldly stating, “Our contribution to climate change will end, definitively, within one generation.” Zero Waste Scotland has been called in to support the movement.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

May 10, 2024

5 Min Read
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Scotland has set a legally binding target to hit net zero emissions by 2045, with the government boldly stating, “Our contribution to climate change will end, definitively, within one generation.”

So, it’s full steam ahead in trying to figure out how to move all sectors of the economy along in the push to cut the nation’s carbon footprint. Zero Waste Scotland has been called in to support the movement. The government-funded agency provides financial and technical backing to businesses, local authorities, and other entities looking to lessen their environmental impact.

A lot of attention is directed to players identified as having potential to make the biggest difference, with the bull’s eye on industries such as construction, energy, and the food and drink sectors. These and other stakeholders are already on their way, says Peter McCafferty, manager of Business Support, Zero Waste Scotland.

“We are fortunate in Scotland in that the landscape of sustainability is developed and high profile. We as a country are working to further accelerate a circular economy as one solution to the climate emergency. It’s about maximizing value of materials and minimizing waste,” McCafferty says.

The work happening in the country’s world-famous whiskey industry is a prime example. "Scotch" exports hit a record $6.45 billion-plus in 2022, powering the economy— and also consuming an abundance of materials and energy. As one way to offset impact, Scot whiskey makers created a robust secondary market from distillation byproducts. The volumes of would-be waste go mainly to animal feed or applications like biofuels to offset petroleum.

In the renewables space, Zero Waste Scotland is helping to further advance an established wind industry.

“Scotland is blessed with many natural resources in terms of wind generation for electricity, and we have seen a lot of early investment in this sector,” McCafferty says.

But many of the initial farms are reaching the end of their first phase of life while the technology has advanced, so projects are underway to replace infrastructure to keep the farms going and maximize power generation.

Some wind turbine components are remanufactured or refurbished, driving demand for skilled engineers and brand-new jobs while supporting energy infrastructure. Decommissioned equipment that can’t be brought back to serve its original purpose goes to new applications, largely in the architecture space. 

Wastewater treatment and water quality have long been on Scotland’s radar, driven partly by the country’s huge fish founding industry and largely by a heavy focus on the bioeconomy – which is about restoring and returning resources to the natural sphere rather than make more manmade materials.

Now Zero Waste Scotland is working on circularity and sustainability projects with Scottish Water, Scotland’s national body for water management.  The relationship evolved from Zero Waste Scotland’s work with other partners that centered around advancing beneficial uses for grit aggregate.

“We were working with a cohort of companies exploring their processes and technologies that could be applied to grit recovery in wastewater where we were encouraging innovation and derisking research and development,” McCafferty says.

These companies wanted to pilot their processes, while Scottish Water was looking for new technologies to enhance wastewater treatment; a part of that was determining how to best deal with grit that enters the wastewater treatment system from road runoff and construction sites that currently is landfilled.  

Over 7,000 tons of grit and sewage-related debris was removed from wastewater treatment works in 2023. So, there was plenty that could potentially be processed into a clean, consistent material for the country’s construction industry.  Working with Zero Waste Scotland, Scottish Water signed on as project sponsor to vet what looked to potentially be a promising fix for a huge waste problem.

Multiple partners have onboarded in what’s become a cross-industry project, with key players being construction and demolition waste recycler Brewster Brothers, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and environmental consultancy group Jacobs. They take on roles from identifying fitting applications to pinpointing the carbon and cost benefits of this alternative approach for a material that has historically been a burden for the agency.

Over the next year Scottish Water will add grit to Scotland’s recycled aggregates supply chain for use in multiple undertakings.

“This project has the potential to convert a significant waste stream into something of value, as well as reduce emissions. It is a fantastic example of finding use and value from a substance that was viewed as waste,” says Grant Hemple, project manager Research & Innovation, Scottish Water.

“With over 2,000 treatment works and 33,000 miles of pipes in Scotland, we have a lot of opportunity to innovate and improve how we interact with the water cycle. Our ambition is to work with customers, communities, and stakeholders to transform what we do to support a flourishing Scotland,” he says.

Now the agency is exploring future resource recovery projects beyond the scope of grit– for instance how to apply circular thinking around designing and refurbishing bridge scrapers, used to facilitate removal of solids from wastewater streams and improve water quality.

And what began as an endeavor between Zero Waste Scotland and Scottish Water to identify where the water utility could reduce plastic, has led to a new project between Scottish Water and the University of Manchester.

“With the knowledge and capability realized from the Zero Waste Scotland collaboration we are conducting further research with the University to address the current linear economic model of single-use lab plastics,” Hemple says.

The project will focus on evaluating plastics decontamination processes, understanding the properties and quality of recycled lab plastics, and determining the environmental footprint of different approaches to curb plastic waste.

For Zero Waste Scotland, making headway is about fostering collaboration and getting buy-in by building a good business case for sustainability.

Says McCafferty: “When implementing new approaches, particularly for large publicly funded organizations like Scottish Water, there has to be due diligence. And they have to be confident that the course they will take is proven and demonstrates benefits.  A motivation is business continuation.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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