Tackling single-use items: independent report

Report from the Expert Panel for Environmental Charging and Other Measures setting out principles that can be used to reduce the dependence on single-use items in society.

Chapter 3: Applying the Principles


This Chapter outlines how you can use the 5Es in your own projects. The Principles do not offer a step-by-step prescriptive tool – rather they provide the necessary foundations to develop appropriate solutions. A list of questions are provided for each Principle as examples of those that could be considered when making decisions. 

The questions include those which the Expert Panel used in the first phase of their work. Alongside the questions, for each Principle, a case study is provided detailing how the Principle was followed in the first phase of the Panel’s work. This work resulted in the publication of eleven recommendations to the Scottish Government on single-use disposable beverage cups.[8]

Before looking at each Principle in turn, we present the sorts of policy options that can be used as solutions to single-use items, as well as an approach to prioritising action. 

Potential policy actions

Appropriate actions for tackling single-use items depend on the context in which an item is being used. The context determines what solutions are available, as well as who the item is used by and whether it can be avoided or an alternative option is available. 

In many cases policy makers as well as decision makers in businesses and other organisations already have levers available to them to address single-use items. Applying the Principles will help you determine which is the most appropriate for your particular item and context. Examples of the main interventions used to deal with harmful items are: 

  • Bans – items can be removed from either the national market, or from a local area like an office, event or other closed settings.
  • Charging – charges can be placed on single-use items to reduce their consumption and encourage shifts in behaviour towards reusable alternatives. 
  • Reusable schemes – provide a pool of reusable items that are borrowed and returned either for free or for a small deposit.
  • Extended Producer Responsibility – makes producers responsible for the environmental costs of the items that they place onto the market in order to incentivise product design change.

Prioritising action 

When deciding what policy action to take on a single-use item, action should be determined based on the purpose and properties of the item (See Fig. 2). The first step should be to identify whether the item is essential or not. If it does not provide an essential function then it can be classed as unnecessary and the item should be removed from the market. An item can also be deemed unnecessary if its use is avoidable or reusable options are available.

If the single-use item provides an essential function and cannot be eliminated, it should be avoided or replaced where possible. This will depend on the specific context of who is using it and where. Solutions should seek to avoid the item in suitable contexts and/or replace the problematic item with a reuse model of consumption where possible. Charges and reusable schemes are policy levers that can encourage single-use items to be replaced with reusable ones in certain contexts. 

In the situations where a reuse model is not feasible and the item cannot be avoided then, it should be considered whether the item can be redesigned to make it less environmentally harmful. Solutions should seek to redesign the item to be fully recyclable under mainstream household and business recycling services. All single-use items that remain on the market should be captured and recycled. 

The EPECOM 5E Principles can help work through the challenges and map out what combination of policy levers will be most effective and appropriate for tackling specific single-use items. The remainder of this chapter offers a range of questions decision makers can ask for each Principle when developing measures and policy interventions.

Figure 2: 
Chart description below

Chart Description

This chart sets out a process to apply the principles to remove single-use items – if you cannot eliminate then avoid, if you cannot avoid then redesign and if you cannot successfully do any of these options then capture and recycle

Essential Functions

The Panel’s work on single-use cups identified two key issues, what alternatives exist to single-use items, and how different solutions would work best in different environments. Finding answers to these issues centred on the question of what a product enables a consumer or producer to do. Alternative solutions need to ensure essential functions are provided. 

Questions on essential functions to consider in decision making include:

  • Is this item unnecessary? Note that an item can be considered unnecessary if it does not provide an essential function or if its use is avoidable or reusable options are available.
  • How do people use the single-use item? 
  • Who uses the item, and for what purposes? Think of the producer or business owner as well as the consumer, does the product enable them to save on costs or service a certain operating model? 
  • Which of the item’s functions are essential and which are non-essential functions (e.g. branding, communicating lifestyle choices)? Note that stakeholder perspectives on this might differ: branding might be seen as essential to a company, but not to a consumer.
  • How can the essential functions be fulfilled by reusable alternatives and systems?
  • Are there any examples of these essential functions being delivered via a reuse model?

Case Study – Beverage cup functions

In the example of beverage cups, the single-use item is a cup but the core product the consumer is purchasing is the beverage. 

The essential functions that need to be met are therefore to:

  • Allow you to hold a drink without leaking. 
  • Protect you from being scalded by hot drinks.
  • Facilitate consuming drinks on-the-go. 

Non-essential functions that a cup can fulfil include:

  • Branding. 
  • Communicating lifestyles.


Working from the best available evidence was core to the Expert Panel’s work from the start. The Panel considered evidence from a broad range of sources and stakeholders including published literature and reports and in-person engagement. 

Questions on evidence to consider in decision making include:

What is the scale of the problem (and is it likely to increase)? How many items are used each year? What happens at the end of life?

  • Are the items often littered and/or impact negatively on wildlife?
  • How resource intensive are they to produce? 
  • What are the environmental consequences of relying on these single-use items? 
  • What are the environmental impacts of alternative items?
  • Who uses these items and why? 
  • What are the impacts on equity and inclusion, both of using these items and potential policy interventions? 
  • What solutions/best practice are being developed elsewhere?

Case Study – Evidence on single-use beverage cups

To ensure a robust evaluation of best available evidence on measures to reduce usage of single-use cups, the Expert Panel commissioned an independent review* of existing literature on price-based intervention to promote behaviour change on cups. 

Evidence was also drawn from experiential learning from reusable cup scheme pilot studies run by Zero Waste Scotland. An example of which was a trial introducing a cost neutral charge on single-use cups at a large Scottish hospital. The results indicated an increase of reusable cup usage from 1% to 43% and a large reduction in single-use cup consumption. 

This collective evidence formed the basis for the Panel’s draft recommendations. These were then presented to stakeholders during two engagement sessions, to test and supplement the information gathered in the review, adding different forms of knowledge to the evidence base. 

The outcomes of the stakeholder engagement were fed back to the Panel, who used the feedback to refine their recommendations. The final Report was presented to Ministers, and included information on existing knowledge gaps and where further research and trials would be needed. 

* Poortinga, W. (2019) EPECOM Rapid Review of Charging for Disposable Coffee Cups and other Waste Minimisation Measures – Full Report.


Equality and inclusion were of pivotal importance to the Panel from the start. The appointment of a dedicated disability expert and a youth representative to the Panel ensured equality issues were kept at the forefront of discussions. 

Questions on equality to consider in decision making include:

  • Are the essential functions of a product the same for everyone? Is there additional/other equality issues that
    are of importance to disabled people? 
  • Will policy interventions restrict access to a product for people who need it? Will everybody have access to what they need?
  • What are potential barriers to using reusable products and reusable schemes for physically disabled consumers?
  • What are potential barriers to using reusable products and reusable schemes for cognitively disabled and neurodiverse consumers?
  • Would there be any unintended consequences that certain solutions may have on physically and cognitively disabled people?
  • Will policy interventions unequally impact on any groups of people? For instance, based on age, income, or geography such as young or old people, people on low incomes, or people in rural areas.

Case Study – Equality perspectives

Equality and inclusivity should be embedded in the policy making process from the beginning. The Expert Panel membership featured a disability expert as well as a youth representative, which helped ensure these perspectives were central to the Panel’s process of formulating recommendations. 

Including diverse perspectives throughout the Panel’s process when looking at single-use beverage cups helped address initial blind spots in the policy process. For example, while evidence indicated switching to reusable cups would not present significant challenges for disabled people, the Panel learned that cognitively impaired and neurodiverse consumers might find it difficult and stressful to have to remember to carry a cup with them. 

Furthermore, it was highlighted that specific consideration on the design of the reusable cup lid was necessary to ensure that the risk of spillage is minimised for those consumers who have difficulties in holding a cup steady.

These learnings are now being fed into additional reusable cup scheme trials being run by Zero Waste Scotland, the evidence of which will feed directly into the policy making process.

Entire System 

As noted in previous chapters, consumption of single-use items is closely linked to existing business models and production systems. For example, the current model of on-the-go consumption reinforces demand for single-use items like cups, cutlery, plates, stirrers and sachets. In addressing the problem of single-use cups, the Panel considered how consumers’ use of cups is a part of a system including on-the-go business models and consumer culture.

Questions on entire system to consider in decision making include:

  • Are there examples from around the world where reusable models have been successfully implemented?
  • What are the systemic barriers to taking up reuse? Would reusable systems require infrastructure investment for example?
  • How do business models benefit from single-use items and how can these be disrupted?
  • What are the policy/legislative barriers restricting the development of reusable schemes and uptake of reusable items?
  • How does business as usual (single-use item consumption) compare to reusable item schemes in terms of consequential system lifecycle assessments[9] and cost benefit analyses?
  • What are the unintended consequences of eliminating or avoiding one particular single-use item within an entire system?
  • What knock-on effects does action on one single-use item have on the wider system?

 Case Study – Drink delivery

Single-use cups have become an essential part of the on-the-go food and drink system. Determining how to move from single-use to reusable cups requires consideration of the entire system.

In considering effective measures to reduce usage of single-use cups, the Expert Panel looked at the role of cups in the wider drink delivery system. This included the lifecycle assessment of single-use and reusable cups*. Moreover the Panel wanted to understand the barriers to reusable cup uptake within the existing system and how they could be removed. 

For example, practical barriers to reuse were identified (via case studies of best practice from around the world) such as a lack of facilities to rinse cups on-the-go, along with the fact that many drinks retailers do not offer a reusable cup even when customers are sitting in. Cultural barriers are also present with on-the-go now being seen as a social norm and consumers preferring to have takeaway drinks than to take the time to sit in.

Barriers to reuse like these are inherent to current operating models, which make it difficult for behaviour change oriented measures such as charging to achieve maximum reduction in single-use cup use without wider interventions across the entire system. 

*Zero Waste Scotland (2019) – Cups Sold Separately report


Stakeholder engagement is essential to building a full understanding of the reality of the challenge as well as an opportunity to explore alternative solutions. Stakeholders who can provide insight on the other Principles outlined above (equity, essential functions, evidence and the entire system of consumption) should be engaged with. A broad and diverse set of stakeholders should be engaged with. Overall a range of different methods can be used including public and private stakeholder events, focus groups, interviews, and surveys. During their work on single-use cups, the Panel engaged with relevant stakeholders to inform their decision making. 

Questions on engagement to consider in decision making include:

  • Who can tell us more about the problem? 
  • Who is developing novel solutions to the problem?
  • Are there any perspectives we need to include to avoid missing an issue?
  • When should different groups be engaged in the process?
  • What is the best way to engage different groups in the process?
  • What existing fora and networks could be used to share knowledge and expertise?

Case Study – Stakeholder engagement

Following initial engagement with a leading academic as part of their evidence gathering, the Expert Panel conducted engagement exercises to identify further evidence on equalities impacts on single-use cups and refine its emerging proposals. The Panel hosted two stakeholder engagement events to have a two-way conversation with key stakeholders. Through their network of contacts, the Panel invited members of industry, NGOs, youth and equality groups to attend the events. Engagement was also undertaken with leading innovators in the field who were developing solutions aimed at reducing consumption.

At the stakeholder events, the Panel presented their emerging thinking and asked for additional evidence. The sessions were designed to allow all attendees the opportunity to discuss the Panel’s proposals in small groups and to provide evidence on any issues that may have not been considered. Stakeholders were able share their views direct to Panel members and Panel listened to this feedback. This two-way exchange helped all stakeholders understand each other’s perspective. 

The evidence gathered from this engagement was used to further refine the Panel’s propositions and identify outstanding issues.


Email: EPECOM@gov.scot

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