Stopping the sixth extinction: A zero waste world


Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

How can we restore our planet to health? From replenishing biodiversity to enforcing legal protection, Salt asks the experts for their opinions on managing the Earth’s health in a critical time. Welcome to the seven-part ‘Stopping the Sixth Extinction’ series.

Taking responsibility for our wastage will help to save our planet, urges Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland.

Substantial species loss, terrifyingly titled ‘the sixth age of extinction’ by scientists, is part of an ever-growing body of evidence that shows we are exhausting the earth beyond its limits, and wreaking havoc on our climate.

It stands to reason that we cannot continue to exploit our natural resources indefinitely, driven by a ‘linear’ economic system where we consume resources with little thought to where they came from, where they will end up when we discard them after first use, or how we’ll continue to replenish them. The potential consequences – global commodity shortages, economic instability and environmental fragility – are pretty scary.

The good news is that an increasing number of people in a range of fields are considering radical changes to the way we use resources to turn around this untenable situation.

How do we waste less, make better use of what we have, and extend the lifetime of resources and products for as long as possible? This vision for a more circular, resource-savvy society is what drives Zero Waste Scotland. We are helping Scotland to be a leading nation internationally moving towards a circular economy, by gathering evidence on key opportunities and applying our expertise and practical support to affect change.

How could the circular economy help the global environment? It’s about moving to an economic system that’s more sustainable, less exploitative of resources, creates fewer climate-changing emissions and provides better quality employment.

Our recent report, Carbon Impacts of the Circular Economy, is one of the first studies to model the impact of circular economy strategies at a national level on greenhouse gas emissions. It found that material consumption is responsible for over two-thirds of Scotland’s emissions, and that a more circular economy could reduce territorial emissions by 11 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year by 2050, compared to business as usual, while providing continued economic growth.

It applies Zero Waste Scotland’s ground-breaking Carbon Metric, comparing a 2012 baseline with four different scenarios for 2050.

The results highlight the substantial carbon impacts of Scotland’s material consumption, as well as providing strong evidence that moving towards a more circular economy could significantly reduce Scotland’s global carbon footprint while still providing long-term economic growth.

Taking action

There are several key ‘zero waste’ initiatives that could have a significant impact on reducing climate-changing emissions. Tackling food waste, an issue across the developed world, is a good example. Food dumped in landfill creates methane, an incredibly harmful gas, as well as wasting all the energy, fuel and waste used to produce it. Tackling our food waste in Scotland alone could save 1.5m tonnes of CO2 a year, the equivalent to taking one in four cars off the road.

We’re also focusing on clothing and textiles. As consumers, extending the life of our clothes by just three months would lead to a 5-10 per cent

reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints, while encouraging the industry to adopt more sustainable practices could help even more.

It’s important to bring business on board with this agenda – one way to do this is highlighting the monetary savings available to them by reducing their resource footprint (whether water, energy or cutting waste).

Business has a huge role to play, partly by driving innovation for long-term change, but even just through taking ‘quick wins’ which could reduce the impact of their resource use by up to £2.9billion in Scotland alone.

The public sector is also a substantial producer of emissions and government-led action is important in reducing these. For example, Resource Efficient Scotland, a programme of Zero Waste Scotland, has recognised this and developed the Climate Change Assessment Tool (CCAT) to help public sector organisations in Scotland assess their performance under the public sector duties of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.

Climate change and its resultant effects, like species loss, may be man-made, but our actions around wasting less and making better use of what we have can meet these challenges if we act together to help foster a new kind of economy, and highlight lifestyle choices that are less exploitative of the earth’s precious resources.



Photo credit: David Barie from Flickr



  1. Iain

    I was disappointed that you did not mention any of the companies who are leading the circular economy, including in engines, photocopiers, carpet tiles, office furniture, commercial refrigerators, etc. I have enjoyed SALT’s inspirational stories and would like to hear more.

    Greg Lavery