How the Recycling Improvement Fund is fuelling Scotland’s circular economy

RIF, Zero Waste Scotland

David Gunn, Recycling Improvement Fund Manager at Zero Waste Scotland, reflects on the achievements of funded projects so far, and why recycling remains key to Scotland’s circular economy.

As we move towards a circular economy for Scotland our recycling infrastructure must keep pace.

Recycling is, literally, right at the heart of “making things last” by giving products and materials a second life; but the recycling infrastructure available to us also has a huge influence on both consumers and supply chains when it comes to making sustainable choices.

Now entering its fourth year of funding, the Recycling Improvement Fund has made a significant impact on Scotland’s recycling landscape.

Announced in 2021, before the global community gathered for COP26 in Glasgow, the Recycling Improvement Fund represents a substantial budget of £70 million for Scotland’s councils.

Since then, it has become a centrepiece of Scotland’s commitment to developing a circular economy.

The Recycling Improvement Fund

Recycling improvement fund
East Lothian Council is one of the local authorities to have benefitted from the Recycling Improvement Fund so far, rolling out weekly collections and purchasing state of art recycling vehicles with specific sections for different recyclable materials.
Credit: Fraser Bremner.

Managed by Zero Waste Scotland along with COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities), SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency), SOLACE, and the Scottish Government, the Recycling Improvement Fund aims to accelerate progress towards Scotland’s ambitious circular economy and net zero vision.

It empowers local authorities to invest in reuse and recycling innovation, recognising their expert knowledge of the wants and needs of their residents as well as their vital role in achieving accessible and impactful behaviour change.

Since its inception, the Recycling Improvement Fund has helped bring dozens of projects to life – from improvements to kerbside recycling services to new and bigger reuse operations, and in locations right across Scotland, from bustling city centres to rural communities.

Recycling and the circular economy

Circular Economy

We know citizens want to do their bit for the planet, and recycling is one of the most popular actions people say they do out of concern for the environment. That’s why getting it right has such potential to foster positive sustainable lifestyle choices for everyone in Scotland.

We’ve seen living proof of this effect in some of the projects awarded funding so far, with improvements to recycling provision demonstrably increasing engagement with sustainable behaviours.

One example is Aberdeenshire, a vast region of almost 2,500 square miles and home to over a quarter of a million people.

Awarded £3.5 million, this substantial investment meant the council could roll out a new twin-stream kerbside recycling service and new collection schedule. The roll-out to over 120,000 households has made it easier for residents to recycle as much as they can, expanded household recycling capacity, and seen both the quantity and quality of recycled materials significantly increase.

Meanwhile, a £90,000 Recycling Improvement Fund award to South Ayrshire Council focused on recycling behaviour while out and about. A move to introduce on-the-go recycling bins matching the colours of wheelie bin tops recognisable to residents from home has led to noticeable shifts in behaviour, with increased recycling rates reported.

In addition to large awards, the Recycling Improvement Fund has also supported a series of projects through its Small Grants Scheme. Eight local authorities have benefited to date, implementing a variety of projects from food waste recycling in flats to mattress reuse.

The impact

Plastic waste

The cumulative impact of the Recycling Improvement Fund is impressive. To date, 38 projects across 25 council areas have been awarded funding, with over £61 million awarded since 2021.

Projections suggest that thanks to enhancements made with Recycling Improvement Fund cash, the people of Scotland will recycle over 50,000 tonnes more each year. That volume works out at around the same weight as five Eiffel Towers and has a carbon impact comparable to taking nearly 30,000 cars off the road for a full year.

While some councils, like Clackmannanshire and the Western Isles, have already completed their projects, others, including Glasgow, are still in the process of rolling them out. With two years remaining before the fund concludes, there is an opportunity for additional councils – and the reuse organisations they work with – to benefit from the remaining funds.

Find out more about upcoming funding rounds on the Zero Waste Scotland website.

Circular Economy Bill and Route Map

Circular economy

Simultaneously, the Scottish Government is implementing comprehensive measures to further reduce the country’s contribution to climate change. The Circular Economy Bill and Route Map to 2025 are key milestones in Scotland’s circular economy journey, providing a pivotal guiding framework for a more sustainable, regenerative, and restorative economic system.  

Zero Waste Scotland has supported the Scottish Government in the development of the Route Map and we are delighted to see it move to the next stage of consultation that closes on 15 March, with everyone in Scotland encouraged to have their say.

Meanwhile, the Circular Economy Bill will give Scottish ministers powers to set local recycling targets, measure progress in reducing waste and minimising Scotland’s carbon footprint, and implement enhanced measures to tackle single-use items and promote reuse.

It has real potential to evolve our throwaway culture into one in which products and materials are valued and made to last, making the circular option the most convenient.

The future is circular

Net zero

Scotland has long been considered a circular economy leader, and developments in the policy and funding landscape, a thriving network of circular businesses, and growing consumer demand for more sustainable options all serve to strengthen and support this role.

If we’re serious about achieving our circular economy future, our recycling infrastructure must go above and beyond. We need recycling provision that’s not only equipped to negotiate more sustainable ways of living and working, but that actually supports and even encourages this.

The Recycling Improvement Fund has been and continues to be, an invaluable tool to help local authorities join Scotland’s sustainable revolution in a really meaningful way, delivering projects that make the circular economy a reality for millions of Scots.

A circular economy requires a collective effort, and the Recycling Improvement Fund shows just how much we can achieve if we all work together.

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