For countless fans of the cult 1996 Scottish film Trainspotting, they will always trigger the memory of Ewan McGregor as lead character Renton hurtling through the streets of Edinburgh.
His much-quoted monologue on the meaning of life in the opening scene riffs on Scotland’s 1980s ‘Choose Life Not Drugs' campaign as it highlights another harmful habit - our addiction to shopping and stuff.
The mainstream lifestyle which Renton and his friends are turning their backs on is one of rampant consumerism. While Renton is hooked on heroin, everyone else seems to be hooked on buying things thanks to the endless pressure which he mocks to choose a life of huge TVs, cars, matching luggage and junk food.
It’s now over 25 years since UK cinemas first showed Trainspotting, the big screen adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s darkly comic novel about working class addicts in the once thriving city port of Leith as recession hit communities hard.
Then as now, people were struggling with the cost of living.
Material goods have long been pushed as a way to make life easier, more fun. Better.
We are used to the push to ‘bag a bargain’ too, from the hustle and bustle of traditional Boxing Day sales to the fastest finger frenzy which Black Friday now brings.
But over the years it’s become increasingly clear just how much damage our mass consumption habit is causing around the world – socially, financially and environmentally.
The single biggest cause of the climate crisis in Scotland today is all the carbon emissions caused by the wasteful way we produce and use things every day.
Too many of us suffer buyers’ regret from impulse buys, while too many others can’t afford to put food on the table or heat their homes. We all need change.
To bag a real bargain, and a better life, we can try to choose to reuse more and waste less wherever possible.
A vast array of 21st century products are created to be used just once instead of designed for life.
They are so common now that we often don’t even see the waste of money and material which they represent.
Take food for example. Our takeaways have long been throwaways.
Everything from a fish supper to a simple cuppa is served with a whopping amount of needless disposable stuff. That doesn’t just make the climate crisis worse by wasting more resources, it often ends up littering our land and polluting our seas.
That’s why from June 1, 2022, some of the most problematic single-use plastic products for food and drink became illegal in Scotland.
The June 2022 Scottish single-use plastic ban
Under the latest ban it is now against the law for any business in Scotland to supply customers, including other businesses, with any single-use plastic cutlery or plates, regardless of whether they’re made from conventional plastic using fossil fuels or the newer biodegradable types, such as those which are compostable.
You might be wondering why biodegradables like compostables are included in the ban. It’s partly because although Scotland has composting facilities on an industrial scale, it doesn’t have the kind of collection or sorting services to deal with our ‘on the go’ lifestyles and ensure that compostable items actually get to those composting facilities.
But the most important reason for banning disposable plastic plates and cutlery which are compostable - or biodegradable in any other way - is because they are often just another unnecessary throwaway product.
The white polystyrene foam cups and containers, which were as familiar in Renton’s time as they are today, are also now banned, along with throwaway plastic drink stirrers.
While disposable plastic straws have been outlawed too, businesses in hospitality and a few other specific places including pharmacies and childcare facilities can still supply them on request to people who need them to eat or drink independently. This vital exemption within the ban was welcomed by disability group Inclusion Scotland.*
It highlights the fact that while we all need to do things differently to help save the planet, how we can do that will vary from person to person, business to business and place to place.
It also demonstrates the frequently overlooked value and versatility of plastic. When used well for a clear, specific purpose, disposable plastic straws can enable many people with disabilities to eat and drink. But the millions of single-use plastic straws and other throwaway plastic products which are used by vast numbers of people who don’t need them create waste, litter and pollution.
The durability of plastic makes it fantastic for things we want to last a lifetime, like PVC window frames. But it also makes the plastic we waste in needless throwaway products even more damaging because it can last for centuries.
*For more on the ban and the straws exemption click here to watch a recording of a webinar featuring our experts, Inclusion Scotland and one of the pioneering businesses we’re helping to ditch needless disposables.
The problem is not plastic – it’s single-use
The latest ban from the Scottish Government comes after a 2019 ban on disposable plastic cotton ear buds and may be followed by future bans on other throwaway plastic items. All these bans will help end litter, marine pollution and the climate crisis.
But the problem here is not plastic, the problem is single-use products. If all we do is switch from needless throwaway products made from plastic to needless throwaway products made from cardboard, or anything else, we will still have vast amounts of needless throwaway products.
And they will still litter the land, pollute the seas and make the climate crisis worse. We don’t have a limitless supply of any of our resources, so if we don’t make better use of them, they will simply run out. Whichever way you look at it, the way we live is unsustainable.
Research by Zero Waste Scotland has found that each year the average person living in Scotland gets through more than twice the amount of stuff they need in order to live both sustainably and well.
From our lasting appetite for fast food to our more recent taste for fast fashion, more and more products have been made and marketed to bin, instead of made to last. Much of it we don’t even ask for or want, it’s just become the norm.
How did we get here?
From a culture of convenience to a culture of waste
Disposable cutlery and cups were originally promoted as a way to save 1950s housewives from the chore of washing up.
It’s easy to see the appeal, which was brought to life in an illustration published in Life magazine in 1955. The eye-catching image was created for an article on ‘Throwaway Living’ when that was seen as a good thing, a convenience.
It is now part of a new exhibition launched by V&A Dundee in partnership with Zero Waste Scotland to explore the changing role plastic has played in our lives over the years for better, and for worse.
We all tend to welcome anything which makes life easier. These days dishwashers have become another must-have in many homes for the same reason. Happily, if used efficiently the average dishwasher does at least use less water than traditional washing up so it is better for the planet on that score.
But in most cases our culture of convenience has morphed into a culture of waste. Grabbing a drink to go or ordering dinner and snacks is such a normal part of life we often don’t even notice what it comes with.
With literally tens of thousands of different choices of shots, sizes and sprinkles it’s easy to miss the hidden cost of ordering a coffee – the ubiquitous throwaway cup.
The latest ban, while a welcome next step in the right direction, only outlaws those throwaway cups which are made from white expandable polystyrene.
But an estimated 200 million single-use drinks cups of all kinds are used every year in Scotland alone. And by 2025 that number is forecast to rise to 310 million.
Most are incinerated or sent to landfill because the waterproof plastic lining these cups have can be hard to recycle. Around 40,000 disposable cups also end up as litter in Scotland each year. And that’s just cups.
Faced with these kinds of statistics it’s easier to see why we need to choose to reuse more. So how do we do that?
Ditching Disposables – helping businesses and customers cut waste, emissions and costs
At the Malvarosa tapas restaurant in Edinburgh’s Portobello, owner Alvaro Bernabeu has always charged people a deposit to take his paella home in the dish it’s cooked in, so they get a feast for their eyes as well as their bellies.
‘It looks much better served the way it is meant to be served,’ he says. It’s a simple system which works well. His customers get a better takeaway experience and Alvaro gets his pans back afterwards so he can use them again and again. It’s also a great way of choosing to reuse to help save the planet, but until lately that wasn’t his aim.
Now it is though, and Alvaro’s tapas place is among about a dozen local eateries in Portobello which have joined the Ditching Disposables scheme. The scheme is funded by Zero Waste Scotland and run by Changeworks, the national charity supporting low carbon living.
Its purpose is to help people like Alvaro try out different ways to reduce reliance on disposable items which will have the best results for the planet, their business and their customers.
As a seaside resort, Portobello attracts a lot of daytrippers. Understandably they are less tempted to reuse under the scheme as they say they won’t be back to reclaim their deposits.
But as more and more takeaways nationwide, including the nearby St Andrews chippy, offer customers discounts for bringing their own reusable cups and containers it will get easier for everyone to choose to reuse and save cash too.
This year also saw global fast food giant Burger King trialling reusable boxes at some of its outlets in England. That could significantly both speed and scale up the switch to reusables and make them the new normal. Such trials are invaluable.
Managers of businesses big and small need to keep a close eye on economic as well as environmental costs before committing to any big changes. The results of the Ditching Disposables scheme will be shared so businesses across the country can learn about what works and what doesn’t for different food outlets as they test different ways to switch away from single-use stuff.
Understanding human behaviour is vital to success too. The popularity of major global sales events like Black Friday suggests that we are natural bargain-hunters. However, studies have found that we’re actually more motivated by avoiding cost than we are by getting a discount.
Scotland’s carrier bag charge broke our national habit of taking disposable shopping bags because it made it clear that all those bags had a cost which could be avoided by bringing our own reusable bags instead.
All those carriers were never actually free, of course, the cost was always factored into the price of our shopping, so we never thought about it.
The same is true of throwaway cups. They have never been free either, the cost has just been hidden in the overall price of your drink.
Studies including this report by Zero Waste Scotland suggest that making the cost of disposable cups clear will do even more to kick Scotland’s disposable coffee cup habit than offering discounts to people for bringing reusable cups.
Experts working with ministers to make that a reality say a minimum charge of 20p could persuade around half the population to ditch disposable cups. Crucially, they recommend keeping the overall cost of the drink the same. So, for example, a coffee which cost £2.50 before, would then cost £2.30 plus 20p for a throwaway cup. That way the change is unlikely to reduce drink sales because drinks won’t cost customers more.
Meanwhile to find more good solutions we need more information on the problems.
The Big Plastic Count (#bigplasticcount)
One of the latest campaigns to gather more data was The Big Plastic Count.
It was launched by Greenpeace UK and fellow campaign group Everyday Plastic, which described it as the UK’s biggest ever investigation into our household plastic waste and where it goes.
Nearly 200,000 people across the UK signed up to record and submit data on how much plastic packaging they threw out in one week in May 2022. One of them was renowned naturalist and TV presenter, Chris Packham, who highlighted the issues at the campaign launch when he said: ‘The UK is one of the worst plastic polluters in the world. Our broken recycling system doesn’t work so instead of dealing with our plastic waste ourselves, we send vast quantities of it overseas where it’s out of sight and out of mind for us, but destroying nature and harming people elsewhere.’
The count followed a Greenpeace video which went viral when it was released last year, rebranding Westminster as Wasteminster to put pressure on the UK Government to ban exports of plastic waste.
Greenpeace used the data from the count to calculate how much waste was actually recycled and how much was incinerated, landfilled or exported. Each household taking part was told what its ‘plastic footprint’ was to help the public and campaigners put further pressure on UK governments to do more about the plastic waste crisis.
Throwaway packaging and products are such a part of daily life and work that even the most well informed and committed advocates for change can find it hard to avoid. As Maja Darlington, Greenpeace UK campaigner, revealed before the full results were published: ‘My own personal plastic footprint was of course terrible as I’m sure many people’s will be because it’s just a dire situation unfortunately.
‘[So], mine was 11% of plastic likely recycled, 16% exported, 25% landfilled and 48% incinerated.
‘Now of course that’s going to be different for everyone but clearly that recycled figure is incredibly low and I don’t expect it’ll be much higher for anyone else'.
Maja’s prediction was borne out as the results came in, with The Big Plastic Count report finding that only 12% of household plastic was likely to have been recycled.
It certainly highlights the need for more action.
The huge amount of waste is also a huge opportunity, however.
Making things last
Greenpeace, like Zero Waste Scotland, is clear that recycling alone isn’t enough to save the planet.
It’s still really important. And, as Greenpeace also stresses, we really need deposit return schemes for drinks cans and bottle to help improve recycling and reuse. Scotland has committed to a scheme which is currently set to be introduced in August 2023.
But while recycling is probably the one thing most people either do or know they should do, it’s also the least valuable way to waste less.
Choosing to reuse everything wherever possible does far more to end the climate crisis than recycling. Like Alvaro and his paella dish deposit, we already help the planet by reusing more and more things without perhaps even always realising that that’s what we’re doing. Growing numbers of people are now reusing things like clothes and furniture by buying secondhand goods which would otherwise go to waste.
A recent UK survey by the Centre for Economics and Business Research and used car marketplace Motorway found that two-thirds of people who bought secondhand goods in the past year said they were mainly motivated by saving money in the cost of living crisis.
The survey also found that Britain’s pre-loved economy had grown to an estimated £6.5 billion in 2022 — up 48 per cent since 2020 — with the market forecast to double in the next five years to £12.6 billion.
Those statistics show how valuable choosing to reuse is for shoppers and businesses alike financially as well as environmentally.
Our waste offers a huge opportunity in all the jobs and businesses which are created by reusing and recycling. They’re all part of the circular economy. Those two words are currently far less meaningful to many people than choose life, or choose to reuse. In three clearer words, the circular economy means this: Making things last.
It’s a system for keeping resources and products in a loop of use for as long as possible. It’s about truly designing for life. And reusing and recycling are just two of a whole list of R’s which sum up the circular economy. In full, and in priority order, they are:
Reduce, reuse, repair, remake and only then recycle.
Choose Leith: From Trainspotting to Flyspotting
Back in Leith, just along the coast from Portobello, locals in Irvine Welsh’s birthplace proved that you can choose to reuse really creatively to help save the planet.
Fed up with people flytipping, they worked with Changeworks on their own take on Choose Life - Choose Leith. They used the cult appeal and humour of Trainspotting to persuade people not to ditch furniture or put up with others turning their neighbourhood into a tip.
In a nod to the film’s Leith setting, they urged people to choose something else: Flyspotting - a new word which they defined as meaning to be on the lookout for flytippers and flytipping in Leith.
Messages using the same distinctive orange and white style as the film’s promotional materials were stencilled on pavements to grab people’s attention.
They also let people know how to report flytipping and the costs and contacts for arranging for bulky items like furniture to be picked up by council or other organisations to help people do the right thing.
The campaign, also funded via Zero Waste Scotland by the Scottish Government and European Regional Development Fund, successfully reduced flytipping by around 25 per cent.
Choose to reuse
As T2 Trainspotting showed in 2017, you can reuse and recycle stories too.
Fast forward to 2022 and the world-famous image of Rodin’s iconic sculpture, The Thinker, has been reused in street art created by The Rebel Bear and displayed on Princes Street.
Meanwhile Ewan McGregor has been beaming into our homes through the internet as himself with a new message about our shopping habits and life choices in the 21st century.
In an advertisement for travel website Expedia, he says: ‘Stuff, we love stuff……..But do you think any of us will look back on our lives and regret the things we didn’t buy?
‘Or the places we didn’t go?’
The message here, straplined Made to Travel, seems to be ‘Seeing the world is better than buying more stuff.
Flying less and driving less would definitely help cut our emissions. But the fact remains that the single biggest cause of the climate crisis in Scotland is everything we produce, consume and bin – too often after just one use. It’s a bit like recycling. Just as a lot of people know recycling helps, most people know that flying doesn’t. But far fewer realise that to end the climate crisis we really need to stop wasting everything.
Making all needless single-use products a thing of the past would help. In the meantime, businesses could kick the habit of automatically handing out disposable products like napkins or sauce sachets to customers, which would save those firms money as well as reducing waste. Customers can learn to politely refuse if they’re given or offered anything they don’t need or want.
If you’re looking for a bargain, try to make sure that’s what you’re getting.
Or to paraphrase consumer advice guru Martin Lewis: ‘If you were going to buy it anyway and it’s now half price, you’ve saved half your money. But if you weren’t, you’ve just wasted the lot.’
And that’s not just cash you’ve wasted but the products too and everything that went into making them.
To choose a better life for yourself, and everyone else, try choosing to reuse.
Want to hear more about choosing to reuse? Listen here to our podcast episode on ditching disposables to stop takeaways costing the Earth.