Chapter 1: The problem with single-use items
The rising costs of our throwaway society
Single-use items are everywhere. Many modern business models are entirely based around their use and they are intrinsically linked to a culture of convenience. Single-use containers, cups, cutlery, and sauce pouches have been integral to the rise of ‘on-the-go’ service models.
The single-use, throwaway consumption model provides short-term convenience to consumers and businesses. However, it creates long-term damage to the environment and society. Consumption of single-use items has a large carbon footprint. For example, Scottish households consume 130kg of grocery packaging each per year which generates an estimated 650,000 tonnes in global production emissions per year (or 0.8% of Scotland’s carbon footprint).
Many single-use items are hard to recycle and end up being landfilled or incinerated resulting in the valuable energy, materials and labour that went into making them being lost. If these items enter the environment as litter/pollution, they can cause severe disruption to local ecosystems causing significant biodiversity loss – particularly in marine environments.
The materials used for packaging account for 0.8% of Scotland’s carbon footprint.
Single-use items make up the majority of the roadside and residential litter in Scotland. This litter comes with large social, economic and environmental costs. For example, it costs the Scottish taxpayer approximately £78 million per year to undertake all activities related to keeping Scotland’s streets and public areas clean of litter and flytipped materials.
Hidden economic and social costs
In addition to environmental impacts, which have received a lot of attention over the last few years, single-use items also negatively affect consumers directly through the hidden cost of single-use items.
Consumers in Scotland are estimated to spend £600 million buying more than 300,000 tonnes of single-use packaging with their groceries every year.
Research by Zero Waste Scotland has shown that consumers in Scotland are buying more than 300,000 tonnes of single-use packaging with their groceries every year. This equates to Scottish households collectively paying an estimated £600 million annually: a significant spend which is hidden within the overall price of their groceries.
Demand for overall reduction of single-use items
There is growing societal awareness of the implications of dependence on items that can only be used for a short time and a move towards a more circular economy where reuse and repair are viable and practical options. There is public understanding that we need to redesign our relationship with resources, and consider the impacts of the whole journey from production through to disposal.
Beyond single-use plastics
The unique characteristics of plastic, and the unique damage it can do to the environment has understandably captured the focus of policy, industry and public awareness. However, by replacing single-use plastics with another single-use item of a different material we risk simply changing one set of environmental problems for another (such as more land or water use).
Compostable items can only break down in specialised facilities. If they are littered or end up in landfill, they still cause environmental harm.
“We must avoid a wholesale and rapid move away from plastic, as the role of this material is vital not just in the protection of goods (like food) but its production and use can often have a lower carbon footprint than alternative materials.”
UK Plastics Pact Update December 2019
The problem is not simply with plastic as a material, but rather with single-use as a model of consumption. Indeed, plastic
may form part of the best environmental, economic and social solution. As such, we need to look beyond tackling single-use plastics towards reducing single-use consumption as a whole.
“Piecemeal policies that only tackle certain uses of plastics or encourage simple substitution for other materials could lead to environmental impacts down the line that could be avoided if foresight is used.”
Green Alliance – ‘Fixing the System’
Changing the model of consumption from single-use to reusable
Addressing the consumption of single-use items requires a fundamental mind-set shift away from making single-use better to phasing out the need for single-use items. It will require collaboration and coordination across the value chain including amongst those designing, procuring and ultimately using those items.
Prioritising action on single-use items
Not all single-use items are created to be of equal value. When deciding what action to take on a single-use item it is important to understand the individual item. Appropriate action depends on what the item is used for, how long it is used for, and who it is used by.
What is the best solution for one item in one scenario, may not be appropriate for a different item or a different scenario. The Principles outlined in this report help users and policy makers to widen their perspective and consider single-use consumption as a whole including when and how it is appropriate to replace single-use plastic items.
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