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Following the Scots' Green Horizons

What we can learn from the government of Scotland's embrace of zero waste advocacy.

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 for its 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. For two days, speaker after speaker talked 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.

What impressed me, is the sincere and collaborative process evidenced in these discussions. Clearly this was 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 that much more difficult.

An important takeaway 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 job creation potential. This appears especially important in the rural areas, called the Highlands and Islands, where economic vitality is waning, leading young people to flock to the big cities of 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 and children's goods. There was even a rehabilitation project taking place to bring a community center to 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 takeaway 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 percent, 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.

Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle International and has had a long career in community resource conservation, social enterprise development and non-profit (NGO) organizational management since 1980.

TAGS: Recycling
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