August 22, 2018
Throwaway no more
When the Chinese recently announced that they’d had enough of our exported ‘recycled’ plastic and paper, the implications were loud and clear. We needed a radically different way of thinking about our waste. And despite all the rhetoric, the idea of moving towards a circular economy remains very much on the margins of mainstream economic thinking. The much needed changes in our attitudes and behaviours will only ever be sustained if they’re seeded in communities and developed from the bottom up. And that’s why the work that’s going on in places like Dunbar is so significant.
‘It was a marvellous sight – and sound. Hundreds of people leafing through thousands of maps. All you could hear was the sound of paper rustling. If you want to pick some of the maps that are left, we’ll send someone to get you in 10 minutes. People totally lose track of time in there.”
I climbed the stairs of the former supermarket – now the giant Reuse Hub in Dunbar – and found a magical room containing piles of vintage maps. I took one of Finland (so old it was still labelled Russia) and another of Trondheim, for a local friend now “exiled” in Oslo. And it’s true, time did stand still.
If one of the 12 employed staff at Scotland’s most ambitious reuse centre hadn’t come in, I’d still be there now, rifling through this vast, fascinating repository of the world’s dimensions collected over decades by a local university, headed for paper recycling and saved by a social enterprise that could soon be the new face of retail in Scotland, the saviour of recycling and a shot in the arm for failing town centres.
The Zero Waste Reuse Hub in Dunbar is described by managing director Simon Glover as a “reuse superstore”. It’s a canny mix of conventional retail language with some absolutely disruptive ideas about how to save objects, tackle poverty, encourage reuse, reduce greenhouse emissions, divert the shopping urge into a search for genuine one-off, never-to-be-repeated unique goods and connect all the people offering and wanting goods who currently get no social buzz or human warmth from watching perfectly good things being chucked into municipal skips. And this social enterprise employs 12 local people at above living wage rates of pay. It seems to be a tale of unalloyed success based on a very simple, but potentially planet-saving proposition – that the reuse of objects rather than the recycling of materials in those objects should be the new green objective for Scotland.
According to Glover, most current recyclers – including the mighty Swedes – either incinerate or sell material on to China or Eastern Europe despite the fact it could still be reused. That has to change.
The “mother” company behind the Reuse Hubs in Dunbar and Musselburgh is Miixer CIC (Community Interest Company). The name spells out the company’s philosophy: Make Innovate Incubate eXtend Educate Reuse.
It was established by Glover and Guy in April last year to develop the legacy of Dunbar as Scotland’s First Zero Waste Town, a scheme established by Sustaining Dunbar (a local development trust and environmental charity). Social enterprise status is vital to Miixer’s success – whilst most other green “players” are part of national charities with the inevitable guidelines, structures, high command and bureaucracy or projects dependent on funding from councils, government, quangos, trusts and other public bodies, the folks at Miixer are their own bosses. The Reuse project receives no external funding because all its costs are covered by trading income, even though Miixer gives tonnes of material out for free to schools, charities, social enterprises and community groups who don’t have the money to buy. Right now, for example, there’s a free school clothing container at the entrance to the Dunbar shop.
“Why doesn’t every school do this at the start of the year? It would save families hundreds of pounds and take old uniforms out of skips and landfill. But people don’t have the time to connect their stuff with other folk who need it. Also the message promoted by recycling is that you’ve done your duty to neighbourhood and planet by chucking perfectly good objects into municipal dumps to be crushed, landfilled or – in the case of clothing – sent on to Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa. That’s so short-sighted,” says Guy. She’s right.
Miixer CIC diverts over 30 tonnes of material from landfill every month and their latest clothing initiative “Big Pick” aims to eradicate clothing poverty in East Lothian – this year. That’s ambitious but eminently do-able.
The prospect of tackling clothing poverty is a big incentive, but there are other factors behind the likely spread of reuse centres across Scotland.
New rules will soon make it illegal to dump textiles and organic waste in landfill. Which means conventional council recyclers – and the private companies they’ve used to outsource rubbish collection – will soon face big problems. Will they simply burn unwanted textiles? In a country where some people can’t afford to buy clothes that would be absurd. Yet, without the sense of mission and the network of contacts developed by social enterprises like Miixer, these companies have very few options, because the option of exporting material for recycling is rapidly closing.
In January, China banned the importation of 20 kinds of foreign waste – including paper and plastic. China has imported 45% of all plastic waste since 1992 so their ban means waste plastic is stacking up all over Scotland and the world because the supply greatly exceeds any demand. Some American towns have given up collecting recyclable waste completely.
With Scotland’s tough stance on recycling, that won’t be happening here. Indeed, with Scottish Labour joining the Greens with a call for net zero emissions by 2050, MSPs will be pushing the SNP towards an even stronger stance on greenhouse gas emissions when the Climate Change Bill is debated this autumn.
All of which means we Scots must change our thinking about rubbish very quickly. Processing waste and making new products require huge amounts of energy, which create more carbon emissions. Yet, even though most is currently bound for landfill, and only 9% of all plastic produced globally is recycled, a 2017 survey found 75% of consumers think recyclable packaging is environmentally friendly.
So the consequences of the closed door in the Far East are enormous. Given that the days of exporting our rubbish are over, the only way out is to stop creating so much waste in the first place. That’s where the reuse philosophy comes in and, like any good revolution, its early adopters are special folk.
Glover is an entrepreneur and retail specialist who originally developed the Miixer idea to help connect artists working with reuse materials and still helps run the Found Gallery on Dunbar High Street.
Guy has worked with communities throughout Scotland for more than 20 years and was the project manager for Dunbar as Scotland’s first Zero Waste Town.
The spur to action occurred when Glover and Guy discovered Dunbar (and every town in Scotland) has usable buildings sitting empty, leased out rather than sold to guarantee no development will take place. But these “onerous leases” benefit no-one, and are a lost opportunity for towns experiencing dramatic decline in High Street shopping. So a social enterprise using the building for next to no rent works for everyone.
And if the materials cost nothing, the rent costs little and diversion from landfill saves the local community thousands in landfill taxes, the money from reused objects can be used to fund good jobs. What’s not to like?
Could this kind of social enterprise help save ailing town centres across Scotland? Well, the Scottish Government has made every one of Miixer’s aims a political priority. Glover is optimistic; “It’s time to rethink our relationship with waste. Businesses and communities often have nowhere to turn to when they’ve finished with their stuff, and are lacking in manpower, time and money to find ethical, green alternatives to landfilling or recycling. Our experience has taught us that when a community-minded solution exists, doors spring open. Scotland is already seen as a leading light in social enterprise and circular thinking, and through harnessing the value embedded in reused materials we can build strong, local circular economies from the stuff we were going to bury or burn. The opportunities are endless and we are just scratching the surface.”
If other communities want to use the Miixer model, the folk in East Lothian are happy to help.