A Throwaway Society - The Case for Change
5. The case for confronting and addressing Scotland's throwaway culture is compelling. The pollution of our oceans, rivers and land ecosystems by single-use items is a global challenge and a major cause of biodiversity loss. While plastic products have many positive uses within society and plastic has become integral to modern life, the current model of single use plastic consumption and disposal is not sustainable.
6. There are environmental impacts, be it carbon emissions, ecosystem damage or greater pressure on water resource, associated with all of the products we produce. When single-use items then make it into our waste management system they are often hard to recycle and end up being landfilled or incinerated. This results in the valuable energy, materials and labour that went into making them being lost and more products being produced to replace them.
7. In addition to these environmental impacts, single-use items also directly affect citizens through the hidden costs associated with their disposal. Disposable items make up most of our roadside and residential litter, carrying with it the potential to cause harm to human health, safety and welfare. It also comes with large economic costs, impacting the Scottish taxpayer to the tune of approximately £78 million per year.
8. A more circular society can reduce these impacts by using products for longer, enabling the reuse of products and ensuring better recyclability as part of product design.
9. The problems detailed above are caused by single-use items made from a range of slowly degrading materials including metals, glass and of course plastic. As well as single-use items, a significant proportion of plastic fishing gear placed on the market is not collected for treatment and can, like other plastic products, pose a serious risk to marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and to human health.
10. A recent study published by the Pew Charitable Trusts states that, without considerable action to address plastic pollution, the flow of plastic into the ocean is projected to nearly triple by 2040 (compared to 2016 levels), equivalent to 50kg of plastic entering the ocean for every metre of coastline worldwide.
11. The durability, versatility and widespread use of plastic has been a significant factor in modern lifestyles and it is these same characteristics that make this material so damaging in the marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments. Plastic represents 20% of all terrestrial litter in Scotland, and it is the most commonly found litter item on Scottish beaches with nine out of the top ten items containing plastic.
12. It is therefore clear to see why plastics have been a key focus of efforts by industry, Government and others to tackle problematic single-use disposable items. We welcome the various voluntary initiatives undertaken by consumers, businesses and industry to tackle this issue and we fully support the EU vision of phasing-out single-use plastics wherever possible. Our efforts to meet or exceed the standards set out in the SUP Directive will help to reinforce Scotland's position as a leader in the circular economy, forming an important component of our work to challenge the model of single-use consumption as a whole. Those efforts are underpinned by the work of our Expert Panel on Environmental Charges and Other Measures (EPECOM) who have recently published their second report, looking at the issue of single-use items in a holistic way.
13. The current COVID-19 pandemic has introduced some new challenges, exposing our reliance on single-use items which have been utilised as a means to suppress transmission of the virus and support the continued functioning of society. While we cannot ignore the long-term damage to the environment caused by this approach, any change must be carefully managed and inclusively delivered, maximising opportunities for business, our economy and society more broadly. This type of "Just Transition" is crucially important.