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Turning the tide on single-use plastics

Happy New Year. 2018 has started exactly where we left off in 2017. Plastic pollution and our throwaway culture is still making the headlines and coffee cups, plastic straws and cotton buds are now under the spotlight as well as plastic bottles. 

Iain Gulland | 11 Jan 18

Few were unmoved by the scenes from Blue Planet II in December, which showed the devastating impact of discarded plastics on our marine environment.

From plastic bags and bottles to fishing gear and even micro-plastics too small to see, our throw-away culture is having an almost cataclysmic effect on our ecosystems - and ultimately our own food chain.

Whilst the scenes played out on Sunday night telly have generated a deeply emotive response from viewers, it’s important that we now follow through with decisive action.

The UK Government has today signalled its intention to eradicate avoidable plastic waste by 2042.  In Scotland, we’re already pushing ahead with plans for a deposit return scheme covering plastic bottles – still the only devolved administration to do so – and now the Scottish Government is the first to propose a ban on the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds.  These measures will turn the tide on some of the most numerous and most impactful items entering our seas and oceans.

This is in addition to establishing an expert group to look at options for environmental charges, such as a levy on coffee cups, building on the success of the carrier bag charge.

These are all potentially powerful measures and they show why Scotland’s continuing commitment to leading on the circular economy is so important.

The circular economy envisions a future which is radically different, driven by innovation and transformative business models.  Raw materials are kept in circulation through changing the way we think about what we need. We generate value through re-use, remanufacture, lend-lease business models, and through purchasing services, rather than products. 

It’s a driver for sustainable economic growth, but it’s also a huge opportunity to reduce the direct and indirect costs to society of dealing with materials that ‘leak’ from the economic system and cause pollution. 

Such leakage, which includes marine and terrestrial litter, should never be an inevitable consequence of the way we live – rather, it provides physical evidence that the way we live needs to change.

Scotland’s planned deposit return scheme provides a good example of a circular response to our throwaway culture.  Around 15,000 tonnes of plastic bottles – that’s hundreds of millions of individual items – are currently sent to landfill each year in Scotland at considerable financial cost. In addition, other bottles, cans and cartons which would be part of a deposit return scheme end up as litter, again at significant cost to the economy. We’ve previously estimated the true cost of litter in Scotland to be at least £100m a year, and shown that half of all littered items could have been recycled.

A deposit return scheme could mean we recycle more than 90% of the 1 billion plastic bottles sold in Scotland each year.  And by attaching a financial value which would otherwise be lost to the consumer if they didn’t recycle, it helps create a mindset shift that there is no such thing as ‘waste’, only ‘resources’.

What is clear is that only by shifting to a more circular approach to how our resource system functions, we will eradicate the visible evidence of its failure on our street, hillsides and seas.  We simply can’t afford to allow this to continue.  

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