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The year 2020 has brought unprecedented hopes and fears for our future – and the future of our planet.

Lockdown brought fears that we might lose hard-won gains in our ongoing work to end Scotland’s throwaway culture – and the impact it has on the climate crisis. But recent multimillion-pound investment from governments and business suggests that instead the pandemic may be helping to drive progress further forward. 

Iain Gulland | 11 Nov 20

In recent weeks the UK and Scottish governments have both committed to investing millions of pounds in new businesses and infrastructure to transform recycling north of the border.  

This is the green recovery in action – ‘Building back better’ to eradicate waste and create more sustainable jobs as we overcome Covid and the climate crisis.   

The Scottish Government has pledged £70million from next April to increase capacity in the services we need to recycle plastic and other materials over the next five years. It will bring Scotland closer to establishing consistent national household recycling services which are easy to use – so everyone, everywhere recycles.  

In the meantime, ministers have allocated more than £820,000 of additional funding through Zero Waste Scotland for the waste and resource management sector. This will help businesses upgrade infrastructure and equipment that will improve environmental performance and sustainability while implementing controls to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  

Some of the problems we face in reducing plastic waste are complex, which makes solving them harder but not impossible. Innovation is key and Scotland has already been leading on a number of initiatives through Zero Waste Scotland’s circular economy programme.  

The UK government has just awarded £20m from its aptly-named Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund for cutting edge recycling technology to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill and incineration or exported overseas.  

Around £3m of this money will support an innovative chemical recycling plant outside Perth which is pioneering ways to recycle a wide range of plastics that cannot currently be recycled using conventional methods.  

The project is being jointly-led by plastic specialists Recycling Technologies, Neste – the world’s largest producer of renewable diesel – and Unilever.  

It’s probably no surprise that an organisation like Zero Waste Scotland has already invested in the site, but the involvement of a consumer goods giant like Unilever is a clear signal that big business is on board too.  

It’s a year since Unilever, which owns global brands from Dove to Ben and Jerry’s, pledged to halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025. It would be easy to dismiss these moves as corporate greenwashing, but the scale of the commitments and investments being made by many of the big corporates feels like there has been a significant change of pace to tackle our throwaway lifestyle.  

Despite the obvious drastic impact which lockdown has had on global retail, the past few weeks have even seen a series of supermarkets announcing that headline pledges to tackle climate change are becoming in-store reality.  

Top of the list is arguably Asda, which has just opened a new sustainability store in Leeds to reduce needless packaging by teaming up with some of the UK’s most popular household brands to provide refills – including for well-known products like PG Tips, Kellogg’s and Persil.   

Crucially the supermarket has promised that customers will not pay more for greener options.  

The Asda approach mirrors our own recent investment to reduce the impact of single-use packaging through a new £600,000 Islands Green Recovery Programme Refillery Fund, which is financed by the Scottish Government and the European Regional Development Fund and managed by Zero Waste Scotland.  

The fund will offer grants to shops across Scotland’s many islands to help them make the switch from single-use packaging to reusable alternatives, or none at all.  

All of this is further proof that the pandemic hasn’t stopped efforts to end the climate crisis. Instead, things might just have accelerated.   

These changes are undoubtedly driven by people power as businesses and politicians respond to public demand for change to save the planet.  

They are also fuelled by rising awareness that we are all part of the problem – and we can all be part of the solution.  

A recent YouGov poll commissioned by Zero Waste Scotland revealed that around four fifths of Scots are concerned about the scale of single-use items and packaging nationwide and would support regulations to limit their use.   

Ironically however, four fifths is also the proportion of Scotland’s carbon footprint that’s down to the vast amount of stuff we produce, consume, and too often waste.   

That is arguably the most important statistic here – and the more people know it, the more they will demand even greater change.  

Everyone can help to eradicate all needless disposable goods in Scotland by taking part in the current Scottish Government public consultation on banning more single-use plastic items.  

Scotland is already the first country in the UK to have outlawed plastic-stemmed cotton buds, and the need to build on that welcome first step is clear – Scots use an estimated 300 million plastic straws, 276 million pieces of plastic cutlery, 50 million plastic plates and 66 million polystyrene food containers each year.  

To overcome Covid and end the climate crisis through the green recovery we must stop wasting everything – including the chance to influence change.  

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