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We need to make the hidden costs of single-use packaging clear

As research by Zero Waste Scotland reveals the hidden financial and environmental costs of single-use packaging, chief executive Iain Gulland points out the opportunities which this knowledge brings as he urges retailers and brands to consider making the price to people and planet more clear

Iain Gulland | 8 Jul 19

Many Scots will have been unpleasantly surprised by revelations on the BBC’s recent War on Plastic documentary which reported that shoppers trying to avoid plastic waste by buying their fruit and veg loose were charged far more for produce without packaging than for the same goods in packaged form.

The findings highlighted the need for greater transparency on what people are paying for and why. They also raised the risk of losing the unprecedented public support which we have worked hard to gain for our collective efforts to reduce waste and the carbon emissions it drives up.

But while ignorance may be bliss, knowledge is power.

Today Zero Waste Scotland has published research revealing that Scottish households are unknowingly buying more than 300,000 tonnes of single-use packaging for their groceries annually.

That is generating some 650,000 tonnes of carbon emissions each year, equivalent to emissions from around four million car journeys from Aberdeen to London, which is making the climate emergency worse. 

Crucially our analysis also revealed that the collective economic cost to Scottish consumers of this is £600 million, which people have been largely unaware of as the cost of packaging is hidden within the overall price of their groceries.

However, making the public aware of this information represents a valuable opportunity to persuade more people of the value of reducing the vast amounts of packaging which is unnecessary and single-use.

In publishing our report today, which has been covered widely by this weekend's press (including; STV, BBC, The Sunday Times, Scotland) we will help to make Scots shoppers better informed about the hidden financial and environmental cost of single-use packaging in everyday products.

Behavioural science studies have repeatedly shown that when consumers can clearly see the cost of packaging, they will seek to avoid it. People will also do this regardless of whether that price is large or small and irrespective of whether or not they want to save the planet as well as their pocket.

This has already been used to great effect in a range of programmes to reduce, reuse and recycle packaging. It was the driving force behind Scotland’s successful move to encourage the public to choose reusable shopping bags, with the introduction of a clear 5p charge reducing single-use carrier bags by 80% in a single year.

To be clear, we will still need packaging to preserve and protect the products which we buy. But too much of the packaging which the things we currently buy comes in is not needed. Eradicating it will significantly reduce the associated waste and emissions which it causes.

Meanwhile the rise in packaging free stores such as Sea No Waste in Arbroath and Glasgow’s Locavore is already demonstrating that reducing needless packaging is both possible and increasingly in demand. Our research findings should help make even more people aware of the need for packaging free products and stores, to inform the kinds of public campaigns which have been influencing political change in Scotland and around the world.

The advent of plastic packaging-free aisles in supermarkets has also shown that major retailers are listening and changing their operations to meet public demand and changing environmental policies.

There is now arguably a case for retailers and brands to tell people exactly what the cost of the packaging on everyday products is to help consumers make a truly informed choice.

Introducing measures to make the cost of single-use packaging clearer to shoppers will, as behavioural research suggests, increase demand for unpackaged or reusable packaging options.

People have the right to know what they are buying, as while single-use packaging may feel free, our research shows it is not. 

Our report, 'The Hidden Cost of Grocery Packaging'.

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