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Why litter is a zero waste issue

This week I spoke at two major events, both absolutely central to our work.  

Iain Gulland - Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland | 21 Mar 13

The first – the Sustainability Leaders Forum – was very high level, aimed at big business, and centred around ‘boldly going’ towards low carbon, resource efficiency, and a circular economy.  The second was a ministerial summit meeting attended by landowners, duty bodies and regulators to discuss and inform proposals for Scotland’s first devolved national litter strategy.

It might not be obvious to the audience at the former, that the latter is part of the same agenda.  Historically, litter has sat in a policy framework based around local environmental quality, community wellbeing and anti-social behaviour.

These are important issues, and the connections between litter and other types of environmental harm do need to be maintained.

But I think that by bringing litter and flytipping into a wider zero waste context we are able to bring a fresh impetus and perhaps a new approach to what is sadly an old problem.  There are three main reasons why we see litter as part of our zero waste agenda.

First, there’s a loss of valuable resources from the system.  Research last year estimated that for every 100 yards of trunk road in Scotland there is, on average, seven plastic bottles and drink cans discarded in the verge. These are valuable materials, and scaled up Scotland-wide, their recycling could potentially support jobs and livelihoods. In fact, today I will be at the Edinburgh International Science Festival to help launch our part of the programme which is a fun hands-on event to show kids and adults just how plastics can be reused, in this case by recycling and remoulding everyday items to make rulers.

Second, like any form of waste, litter is a drag on the economy.  Not just in terms of the direct removal costs, which are by themselves substantial, but also the indirect costs in terms of reduced quality of life, neighbourhood decline and wider public health or environmental impacts.

Thirdly, and most importantly for me personally, it’s really a credibility issue.  We can talk a good game about zero waste and a circular economy, but will we ever be taken seriously if we don’t get to grips with litter and its root causes?

On this, maybe we need to think about how we measure progress towards zero waste.  Our headline zero waste targets are for 70% recycling and only 5% of waste going to landfill.  But, if we hit or even exceed those targets, will it not be a hollow victory if we still have the same litter problem up and down our country?

We’re at the start of a debate on how to address these issues.  There’s a lot we need to know and we are currently working to build the evidence around litter.  There’s also a need for fresh thinking, and we are supporting some really innovative projects across Scotland.

But most importantly we need to engage people in being part of the solution.  Fundamentally, this is about attitudes.  If we do our job well, and articulate a clear vision for a zero waste society and what that means to people, we will start to create positive attitudes – a sense of stewardship for our country and its assets – that will help us close the credibility gap on litter. 

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