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We need to know where all our plastic goes

As the BBC’s War on Plastic series highlights the harm our waste is doing on the other side of the world, Zero Waste Scotland chief executive Iain Gulland calls for greater action and outlines how new developments will bring change.

Iain Gulland | 16 Jun 19

For me, the over-powering image from the BBC’s new War on Plastic documentary this week was of the vast stockpiles of abandoned plastic waste found in Malaysia on the edge of the jungle.

The fact that a proportion of the plastic sent for recycling - and now littering the ground - had clearly come from the UK illustrated starkly that this is not a distant problem which we can turn a blind eye to, as if it has nothing to do with us.

It was an uncomfortable public ‘outing’ of our collective failure to deal with our own plastic waste effectively and solve a problem which has literally been building up for years, both here and on the other side of the world.

Having visited Indonesia last year as part of an EU circular economy delegation, I saw first-hand the damage our global addiction to single use plastics is doing in Asia. Our discussions with Indonesian ministers and officials around the transformative opportunities of taking a more circular approach to their country’s resources were hugely positive, and there was clear interest in some of the emerging technologies which we are developing in Scotland.

But my abiding memory from that visit is of their reply when we asked what else we could do to help, as they said simply: ‘Please stop sending us your plastics.’

Many people across Scotland may have been unaware that we were doing that until they saw this week’s programme. The Scottish public already do their best every day to do the right thing and play their part, despite what can be a confusing array of different product labels and recycling services -which can make it hard to figure out what can and can’t be recycled. But if ultimately, through no fault of their own, some of their efforts result in the kind of scenes broadcast on Monday then their trust in recycling could break down.

So, we need to act now. As global citizens we should be concerned with the lack of transparency. Ignorance on what happens to our material is not a defence we should be offering. Nor is the argument that it’s a complex picture influenced by geopolitical change, market forces, system dynamics and policy.

And in our high-tech digital environment, real-time tracking of our plastic waste is already in reach. Scottish start-up, Topolytics, is blazing a global trail by using live data to map the journey of industrial and commercial waste to help us switch to a circular economy. Working with SEPA and the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, this pioneering firm is also helping to track movement of plastic waste UK-wide.

All this is welcome, but we should already know where all of our plastic waste ends up. The current reporting of where our waste goes is varied in terms of detail and is not as accessible to the public as it could be. If it was easier for the public to see more clearly what happens to our plastic, and what is being done to improve how it is dealt with, people would be more likely to support recycling and have a better understanding of the full impact of their actions.

Looking forward, there is surely a pressing need to consider imposing restrictions on plastic waste exports and a clear ambition to reprocess all our plastic waste here in Scotland.

We are set to revolutionise our capacity and ability to recycle our plastic through ground-breaking schemes like Project Beacon, which is set to be the world’s first plant where every type of plastic can be recycled under one roof.  

Scotland’s forthcoming Deposit Return Scheme, which we are playing a lead role in along with government and industry, brings valuable opportunities around PET reprocessing. There are already clear signs that it will bring investment here. What is still lacking perhaps is the clear presentation of such facilities as essential infrastructure, which are as integral to the management of waste as the bins and collection trucks which we are used to.

Our future pact with the public should be about joint ownership of both the issues and the opportunities.  People are slowly changing their perception of waste from something to get rid of to something of value which can be used to help protect the environment instead of wrecking it. We are asking them to do their bit for the planet – it’s time we did our bit too.

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