Scotland Study Tour: Circular economy and social issues are closely connected

Our latest study tour took us to Scotland, where our host, Circular Communities Scotland who gave us a presentation in a webinar previously, gave a tour of some the projects and charities they support. These are all applying circular economy practices while at the same time improving their local communities by addressing social issues such as homelessness and poverty.

Fresh Start

On the first day, we toured projects based in Edinburgh, the first stop being Fresh Start, a community hub that helps people out of homelessness, prevent people from going back into it and people who are at the tipping point of going into homelessness.

They do so by providing starter packs of everyday items needed in a home, such as crockery, cutlery, bedding and other items. They have good connections with around 80 churches who put calls to their congregations for donations. When people are given a house by the council, Fresh Start arranges for volunteers to help by painting the house any colour they want. This is important as they give strong emphasis to dignity, being able to personalise something is a characteristic of this.

They have provided so far approximately 14,500 starter packs, and in doing so, have diverted 80 tons of waste from being landfilled. They also offer bespoke starter packs, depending on the needs of individuals and can give people things that will allow them not go into debt or go without. Through events they organise they also raise funds to purchase white goods.

A study by the Edinburgh poverty commission found that the most impactful way to help people is to be given the possibility to talk and have access to advice and information. To tackle the problem of isolation and help people that need advice or simply to talk to someone about their circumstances, Fresh Start provide a welcome space, a community kitchen area where people in need can drop in and use. The welcome space aims to help people feel at home and connected in their community. They also arrange for housing and benefits advisors to come and talk to anyone who needs them.

At their premises are also a community kitchen where they have cooking classes and anyone can come. There is also a pantry where people can pay £4.50 and receive £30.00 worth of food. Some things are also given for free.

They have backing and also receive donations from a lot of people and businesses. Volunteers play an important role in Fresh Start, there are 150 volunteers and 22 full and part time staff.

Edinburgh’s Furniture Initiative

Our next stop was Edinburgh’s Furniture Initiative – EFI at FourSquare. Four Square is a large furniture reuse project that supports people that are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. They offer support, advice, accommodation as well as learning and training opportunities. EFI is the part of FourSquare that re-sells donated furniture.

They take furniture donations from the public who can drop it at their warehouse themselves or have it collected by Four Square. People that want to donate their furniture send photos first, for an initial assessment on damage, law compliance and if it is sellable. If approved, a driver will be sent to pick it up, who will do a further assessment before collecting.

If any furniture is not accepted it is down to the owners to dispose of it, FourSquare may direct them to channels such as social media to give the items away and this way may still benefit someone who needs it.

If the item is brought back to FourSquare it will be cleaned and put on display for sale. The pricing of any items is based on if its an antique, new or a known brand. The Revolve Accreditation they have, means they are giving good quality items. In order to obtain this, they have to follow a checklist to meet all requirements and make sure the item passes them. This accreditation means they can supply furniture to housing associations.

Housing associations in the UK are charities that own social housing and will provide a house to people that cannot afford a home. People in need are given vouchers by the housing association and can go and get what they need. The variety and choice of items also provides more dignity, people can choose how to decorate and make a house a home.

So far, thanks to this initiative, 289 tons of waste was diverted from being landfilled last year while saving money for households and housing associations who can make their budgets stretch further this way.

Move On Wood Recycling

Our third stop for the day was at Move On Wood Recycling. They collect different types of waste wood mainly from construction sites such as wood used in scaffolding, pallet wood (which is where most waste wood in the UK comes from) or old wooden flooring and try to resell it in a number of ways. They charge a fee for the wood to be collected. Sometimes they may receive or buy and try to resell factory rejects due to defects from a big local commercial sawmill.

Depending on the condition of the wood, they may try to sell it as is to builders or individuals for their construction and DIY projects. Wood that can’t be sold as is, is repurposed as much as possible, by making custom furniture such as tables and planters. Making furniture is their biggest income as each item made is a bespoke order, customers want something that will fit perfectly in their space.

Wood that has been at their warehouse for around four months or can’t be reused, is sent for recycling, normally turned to woodchip for biomass production. They also sell some firewood.

Scaffold boards can be used for about 10 years before they are discarded. They also receive a lot of whisky barrels as these also cannot be used after some time. Old barrel’s wood can be used for fire to smoke meat. At times, they have also received material from the theatre.

Customers ordering furniture are usually individuals or cafes and pubs looking to give a certain character and cosiness to their premises. When they have spare time they to experiment more with designs and ideas.

Every ton of wood used, saves half a ton of CO2. Move On Wood Recycling, help people through teaching woodworking whether it’s for the homeless or people in need to acquire skills to then find employment or people who may be well financially, but manual work helps them deal with mental problems. Volunteers may also come in to work once a week, normally they want to learn woodworking through volunteering and some come for the social aspect of working in a shared space. They also run school programmes to learn woodworking.

Edinburgh Remakery

Our final stop for the day was the Edinburgh Remakery, located in the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre. The Remakery tries to help communities and exists primarily to educate about repair and reuse. Among their work is to create awareness about how items such as electronic devices are made from finite resources and try to bring to the mainstream the idea that there is a different way to engage with repair and reuse. Their thinking is guided by the moto: “Waste less live more”.

They work with people in the community to tackle poverty, while at the same time showing that circular economy works and makes business sense. They have been awarded the Queen’s Award for Business and Sustainability, an award normally won by big companies.

Workshops are run to teach repair skills such as sewing, knitting, book binding and anything that helps make things last longer. Corporate workshops encourage teams to have meetings and do a fun activity through repairing items. Furthermore, they run community clubs for society’s vulnerable people that can come in and do anything they like, such as repair or just sit.

Being able to use a computer and go on the internet widens a person’s possibilities. For this reason, the tech gifting programme was created to help people facing digital poverty, through this they give laptops to people that cannot afford one.

A display called the retro tech wall, offers a visual demonstration of how quickly tech becomes obsolete. People that see the wall recognise most items as ones they have owned and realise how they have changed in a short time generating waste unnecessarily, especially as most, if not all items work perfectly. The display aims to show that the planet and society cannot sustain such a fast pace.

Another concept developed by the Remakery is for people to donate unwanted electronics through tech donation boxes. Trials started with 4 boxes with now 14, available throughout Edinburgh and are sponsored or hosted by companies.

Collaboration from businesses is also key in making circular economy happen. Before the pandemic, just 1 company would donate old or unwanted equipment.  After finding and addressing the main concern for companies to donate, which are data, security and costs to transport they began to offer free tech disposal for businesses and free data wipe certificates. Soon enough, over 150 companies began to regularly donate old tech.

The tech being donated, is refurbished and can be bought at affordable prices. It is also possible to buy it online and all items come with a 12 month guarantee. Three e-waste operatives take apart tech that is not working to reuse or sell the parts with that can’t be used being recycled. Hardware technicians repair and refurbish items that then go for resale.

Their customers can be anyone and soon they will be promoting to and rewarding businesses with discounts for buying second hand electronic items. In 2021, they received 80 tons of e-waste, out of that 89% was reused and 11% was recycled.

The Reuse Consortium

While at Edinburgh Remakery, we had the opportunity to hear about how Circular Communities Scotland has campaigned for authorities to have as an option to buy reused furniture and help write the framework. They established the Reuse Consortium consisting of 12 of their largest members that work with reused furniture and worked with them extensively to make sure they comply with all standards for selling to authorities. In doing so, they have become approved suppliers and now authorities and housing associations can quickly source furniture without having to go through a tender process.

This is an example of how changing behaviours in public procurement, helps in the process of establishing a circular economy.

Buying through the consortium means more people are supported as the lower costs means they can buy more items. The variety in furniture available also offers uniqueness, individuality and dignity for the people receiving them. Every used sofa saves 40 kg from landfill and 88kg of CO2.
Since 2016 when the Reuse Consortium was established, 25,000 items have been reused, over 1,100,000 kg of waste diverted from landfill, 3,000kg of CO2 saved and 11,200 families have been helped.

Transition Stirling

On our second day of our tour we headed to Stirling where we started the day with Transition Stirling and two of their projects, the Tool Library and the Community Food Project.

Tools thrown away cause a lot of carbon emissions and statistics show that most people that buy them only use them once. To tackle this issue and to help people that cannot afford to buy tools, as the name suggests, the Tool Library acts just like a library but for people to borrow tools. Among their inventory, they have tools for any type of work, including power tools and gardening tools and even have tents and equipment used for evens such as Halloween costumes.

To borrow tools, people need to become a member and although not mandatory, are encouraged to pay a suggested donation of £30.00 per year if they can afford it. They currently have 200 members and approximately 300-400 items, some of which have been bought and others have been donated.

An online catalogue is available for people to browse for tools available and reserve them. People can borrow tools for as long as they need them, but there are late fees for keeping tools longer than intended. The library is useful for people that cannot afford to buy tools but also, some specialised tools can be very expensive and to pay for using them just once is unnecessary, for example tools like fruit pickers or crushers.

To help spread the idea and replicate the project, a guide has been setup and events are run on how to setup a sharing library.

The Community Food Project has deals with food producers to be given unwanted food items and distribute these to charities which pay for them at a fraction of the cost. They have a pantry where they sell food items at a rate of 5 items for £2.50. Items that are not necessities and normally more expensive, may be sold at a higher rate. They also encourage a pay-up-forward scheme where people can pay a voucher for someone else who will come in after them and are not able to pay.

There is also a section where food is given for free. Although this sounds similar to a food bank, they are different as for the Community Food Project, the primary goal is to avoid food going to waste. Research shows that if food waste was a country, it would be the 4th largest emitter of CO2. Around 100 people visit every day, and the place is cleared out within 2 hours.

A challenge they face, is having the right number of people available to manage the people coming in and ensure safety. They currently have funding for rent and 3 part time staff and around 50 volunteers. Another challenge is sometimes stores try to give food that is expiring on the same day such as bread or cream or items unlikely to be consumed on the same day, as an effort to pass the responsibility of their waste to someone else.

Food that cannot be given away is either given to the animal sanctuary, or to be recycled by anaerobic digestion with some vegetables going into composting. Through these practices they have achieved levels of just 1% of waste.

Transition Stirling are also part of an Erasmus+ project investigating setting up sharing libraries. The project counts on a partner from Lithuania, so CBWM project partners are invited to get in touch for training.

Stirling Reuse Hub

Our second stop for the day was the Stirling Reuse Hub, another Transition Stirling project, which has been running for just 6 months and has already saved 65 tons of waste from going to landfill.

People can drop off things for the Reuse Hub in a container positioned at the local recycling centre or directly at the shop. Sometimes the Reuse Hub might receive electronic devices and they can give these to people that need them but cannot afford to buy them.

They also upcycle furniture with local artists encouraged to take items, upcycle them and place them for sale, out of which 80% of the profits go to the artists and the rest to the Reuse Hub. At the premises, one can also find a wood workshop, where many of the palettes they receive are turned into useful things for example planters. Training is offered for youngsters that prefer to learn more practical skills and also for the unemployed and retired.

Maker spaces at the premises, are available to give people the chance to have a space to explore their creativity. The only condition to use the space at the moment, is that they use waste or unwanted items, some of which can be provided by the project. The spaces give people an opportunity to work in a community.

The Reuse Hub has strong links with the local municipality’s departments that work with waste, the homeless, education, learning and employment and digital inclusion. Furthermore, they have links to a mental health charity and bring in a person to support volunteers and staff.

Workshops are delivered on topics such as creating mosaics, furniture upcycling and other creative topics related to repair and reuse of waste.

A repair station is also available for people to bring things to be fixed which eventually will be offered at a charge. Training for children about repairing things is available as well.

Managing storage is a complex task as it is a challenge to organise neatly and safely for people to move and work around and to achieve a balance in demand with mismatching items. The Reuse Hub employs 7 people and counts on 30 volunteers and 30 makers. Their income comes mainly from paid workshops, events and sales of items, especially bric-a-brac.

Zero Waste Scotland

Further on, we met with Zero Waste Scotland, the main funder of Circular Communities Scotland and a key player in Circular Economy policy in the region.

They are the arm of the Scottish government for creating and implementing policies in circular economies. They have been active since 2014 and have grown to 180 staff with a £35 million annual budget.

Part of their work is to carry out research, provide evidence and carry out all the analysis on numbers in terms of carbon footprint and environmental impact. They then use these numbers to influence and engage the government, businesses and individuals. Their research shows that 80% of carbon footprint in Scotland comes from products and materials consumed.

Zero Waste Scotland runs a lot of programmes and funding to support action towards a circular economy, including an £18 million investment fund, one to one business support services, reuse and repair infrastructure, CE skills hub, public procurement training and others.

Furthermore, they engage with citizens by for example running an exhibition demonstrating the impact daily actions related to waste might have and work with active partners like Circular Communities Scotland to implement access and promote to the communities.

Around 75% of waste material collected in Scotland gets sent outside of Scotland. Keeping in mind that for every 1 job in waste collection, there are 8 jobs in sorting, processing and repurposing, means that along with this waste, economic opportunities and job creation are being exported.

An important goal for them is to assess social, wellbeing and economic benefits in order to understand the right metrics to measure circular economy. In addition, they manage the Revolve accreditation.


The Revolve accreditation is a Scottish national reuse quality standard. The purpose of this quality mark is to raise confidence in reused items. When shoppers go into a shop and see the quality mark, they are more likely to buy a second hand item. Revolve supports organisations to meet legal and trading standards and to offer an excellent shopping experience. They have been running for 10 years and have certified 116 stores. They work with these continuously to keep raising and maintaining standards.

Two key things they have observed is that instore branding of the quality mark works better than national branding and what changes buying behaviours is for the stores themselves to look appealing to customers. With this in mind, they plan in the future to focus more on support to organisations rather than consumers, in aspects such as how to retail and market second hand items.

Recyke a Bike

Our final stop was at Recyke a Bike, a bicycle recycling charity that also trains people that want to acquire skills that will increase their employability. They recycle as many as 20,000 bicycles of all kinds of types in one year. Bicycles that are not sold or cannot be repaired are taken apart for spare parts. Parts that can’t be used, are sent for recycling and they have partnership with a company that can recycle the tyres and turn them into paving tiles.

On winter days, the shop may have as many as 100 bicycles whereas in the summer as little as 6. An online shop might be launched to help with sales for the winter months, as during the summer bicycles that come into the shop are usually sold within a week.

Bicycles are typically sourced from recycling centres, the municipality, and donations, people can drop them off or have them picked up. People can also bring their bicycles into the workshop to have them repaired. Bicycles are built and repaired by a qualified mechanic and cross checked for quality. 

At Recyke a Bike, children can learn how to ride their bicycle safely and receive free road training. They also run a 6 week training programme in bicycle mechanics to repair bicycles aiming to give people well rounded skills and certifications so they can use them to look for a job. Assistance with writing a CV and a cover letter is also available. An advertisement in the UK by the Navy stated that if you can fix a bicycle, you can fix a helicopter, so acquiring these skills can pave the way for further advancement.

Training is also offered specifically for lorry drivers on how to work with cyclists on the road so both can be safe and also how to ride a bicycle with cargo as they are being used more and more for local deliveries. The biggest issue for people taking up cycling is the infrastructure, until this is improved, training can help more people take on cycling.

The Dr. Bicycle service is also run as a free repair service, where members of the team visit schools in poor areas and repair the bicycles of children.

They have received funding for the training programme, whereas the workshop is funded through sales in the shop. They aim to be self-sustained without need for external funding.

There are other similar larger projects which have on occasion donated bicycles to them when they don’t have space. Charities try to help each other as much as they can and Recyke a Bike has at times provided bicycles to a charity that sends them to Gambia.

Recyke a Bike are also hired to maintain the electric bikes of the Forth bike sharing scheme as well as their stations. There are 135 electric bikes across Forth which all have a GPS with exact location which can be tracked through an app.

Conclusion with Circular Communities Scotland

Although tackling issues from different angles, the charities visited in our tour have a lot in common.

They work on the principle that solving waste issues and applying circular economy practices, go hand in hand with solving social issues, such as homelessness, unemployment, poverty and even mental health. Looking at these issues collectively, improves people’s lives and the environment. Charities work best when they help each other towards this common goal.

The charities all vary in size, but their collective activity is huge. Between the 235 members of Circular Communities Scotland, they estimate that around 25,000 tons of waste has been diverted from landfill and sent for reuse or recycling, while generating an income of around £100 million.

All these charities count on the support of Circular Communities Scotland who tell their stories and represent their members by lobbying to the Scottish government for change to happen in policies. Members are supported through events, information on funding available to them, training, one to one developmental support and may even pay for members to go on learning visits. Membership is free for small organisations, larger ones are charged a fee.

When charities or other organisation receive funding, this tends to be for innovation and to start new initiatives, funding is rarely planned for running the initiatives long term.  It is also generally easier, to get funding for physical things like stands, fridges and less easy for hiring people. The stigma that charities can run through volunteers ads to this challenge. However, to run such initiatives people are needed that can coordinate, pay the bills and staff and write the reports. Circular Communities Scotland are working for charities to receive the funding they need so they can continue to impact and improve societies long term.

More photos from the tour can be found on the project facebook page here.

The Circular Based Waste Management project is funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA and Norway Grants Fund for Regional Cooperation –

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