Market restrictions on single-use plastic items: consultation analysis

An analysis report summarising and describing the responses to the public consultation on introducing market restrictions on single-use plastic items in Scotland.

Executive summary

1. The Scottish Government's Programme for Government 2020–2021 set out plans to consult about introducing market restrictions (essentially, a ban) on plastic items covered by the EU's Single-Use Plastics Directive.[1]These are: single-use plastic cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers and balloon sticks; food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene; and all oxo-degradable products.[2]

2. The consultation, Tackling Scotland's Throwaway Culture: Introducing Market Restrictions on Problematic Single-Use Plastic Items in Scotland, was carried out between 12 October 2020 and 4 January 2021. It sought views on the items to be covered by the restrictions, and how the restrictions might be implemented.[3] The consultation contained eight questions with a mix of open and closed (tick-box) questions. A summary of key findings from an analysis of the responses is presented here.

Description of the responses and respondents

3. The consultation received 2,689 responses, comprising 787 substantive (i.e., personalised) responses and 1,902 campaign responses (i.e., responses submitted using a standard template – in this case, provided by Friends of the Earth Scotland).

4. Substantive responses were submitted by 90 organisations and 697 individuals. Organisational respondents comprised environmental charities, third sector and community organisations (n=29); packaging manufacturers and other types of manufacturing organisations (n=22); food, drink, tourism and other business organisations (n=16); public sector organisations (n=11); environmental consultancies and resource management organisations (n=8); and a small group of other organisations that did not fit into any of the preceding categories (n=4).

Views on the introduction of market restrictions

5. There was strong support, among both organisations and individuals, for market restrictions to be introduced on single-use plastics (i.e., single-use plastics supplied in a commercial context). Among individuals, 94% were in favour of a ban on all the items specified in the consultation paper. Among organisations, the proportion in favour of a ban ranged from 76% for single-use plastic plates, to 91% for single-use plastic balloon sticks, and for food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene. In addition, 1,902 respondents who submitted their responses through the Friends of the Earth Scotland campaign expressed support for market restrictions on all the specified items. In general, packaging manufacturers and other types of manufacturing organisations were less supportive of market restrictions on the specified items than other respondents.

Views in favour of all the proposed market restrictions

6. Respondents in favour of market restrictions on all the proposed items acknowledged the convenience of single-use plastics, but thought (i) they were a symbol of Scotland's throwaway culture, (ii) none of the items in the proposed list could be considered 'essential', (iii) the harm (to the environment) caused by these items was, in most cases, greater than any benefit they provided, (iv) their continued production and use acted as a deterrent to innovation and or wider use of existing 'greener', 'more sustainable' alternatives, and (v) existing alternatives were, in many cases, cheaper than the equivalent single-use plastic item. Respondents also argued that regulation was needed to 'make change happen', and that banning these items was preferable to charging consumers more for them.

Views in favour of restrictions on most but not all the proposed items

7. Some respondents supported restrictions on most (but not all) of the single-use plastic items specified in the consultation paper. Individuals in this group often identified themselves as disabled, and / or raised concerns about the possible implications of the proposed restrictions for disabled people. Most of the organisations in this group were food, drink, tourism or other business organisations, or manufacturing organisations. These organisations highlighted areas where exemptions to the restrictions should be introduced (for example, in vending machines, or in relation to bio-based and compostable take-out packaging) or they called for life cycle assessments to identify the social, economic and environmental impacts of potential alternatives to the single-use plastic items that are proposed for restrictions.

Views opposed to market restrictions

8. A final small group of respondents opposed market restrictions on at least half of the specified items. This group (mainly manufacturing organisations or food, drink, tourism and other business organisations) argued that, in certain contexts, including within health and social care, or the catering / hospitality sectors, there were no better alternatives available, and they opposed what they saw as a 'blanket, one-size-fits-all' approach to dealing with single-use products made of plastic.

Views on restricting the non-commercial supply of single-use plastics

9. Respondents were supportive of restrictions on the non-commercial supply of single-use plastics, and thought this would provide a consistent approach to tackling Scotland's throwaway culture. Those opposed to such restrictions (all of whom were packaging manufacturers or other types of manufacturing organisations) highlighted the potential costs of alternatives for charitable and community food groups and the NHS, or they argued that bio-based compostable single-use items should be permitted where reuse is not possible for health, safety, practical or economic reasons.

Views on restricting the manufacture of single-use plastic and oxo-degradable items

10. Overall, 94% of respondents supported the proposal to introduce a restriction on the manufacturing of the specified single-use plastic items, with similar levels of support among individuals and organisations as a whole. However, food, drink, tourism and other business organisations and manufacturing organisations were divided in their views.

11. Respondents supporting this restriction thought the manufacturing industry needed to take greater responsibility for the environmental damage their products cause. The main point made, by both organisations and individuals, was that if the commercial supply of the specified items was going to be effectively banned in Scotland, then it would be 'inconsistent' to permit companies to continue to profit from the manufacture and export of these items to other countries.

12. By contrast, the most common reason given by respondents opposed to a restriction on manufacturing was that this would risk Scottish companies becoming uncompetitive internationally given that such restrictions will not exist in many other countries.

Oxo-degradable products currently present on the market in Scotland

13. Respondents (mainly organisations) identified (what they believed to be) a range of oxo-degradable products on the market in Scotland. These included bin liners, bubble wrap, carrier bags, clear cold drinks cups, cling film and freezer bags, disposable nappies, dog waste bags, food packaging, newspaper and magazine packaging, pallet wrap and tree planting tubes, among others.

14. However, respondents repeatedly stated that, whether or not products made of oxo-degradable plastic were currently sold in Scotland, they would support a ban because of (i) its harmful impact of on wildlife and the environment, (ii) its unsuitability for recycling, and (iii) the confusion caused among retailers and members of the public by its marketing as an 'environmentally friendly' material. Some respondents said that even if oxo-degradable items were not for sale in Scottish shops, they were likely to be easily accessible over the internet.

15. Respondents made three main suggestions regarding the implementation of a ban on oxo-degradable products in Scotland. They supported (i) a blanket restriction, rather than restrictions on a list of specified products to ensure that any possible future products made of this material are included within the scope of the restrictions; (ii) better public information about different types of plastic waste; and (iii) assistance for businesses to find alternative solutions if they are currently using oxo-degradable plastics or packaging.

Possible exemptions on the proposed market restrictions

16. Overall, 80% of respondents were opposed to exemptions to the proposed market restrictions that were in addition to those set out in the consultation paper, while 20% supported additional exemptions. However, organisations and individuals had different views on this issue; most individuals did not support further exemptions whilst organisations had more mixed views – with around half in favour and half not in favour. Manufacturing organisations and food, drink, tourism and other business organisations were more likely than other organisations to say that additional exemptions were needed.

17. Respondents who wished to see further exemptions focused on groups of items or 'materials' that might be exempt, with most suggestions linked to two main sectors: the medical, care and independent living sector, and the food drink and catering sectors.

18. Respondents who were opposed to additional exemptions argued that a minimal approach to exemptions should be adopted to (i) provide clarity for all parties; (ii) avoid loopholes which would potentially undermine the aims of the market restrictions; and (iii) increase the effectiveness of the legislation, encourage innovation and maximise the environmental benefits.

Ensuring access to single-use plastic straws for exempt groups

19. There was general support among respondents for a proposed exemption to the market restrictions where single-use plastic straws were required for medical reasons or to support independent living. Respondents suggested that disabled people should be consulted to determine how best to implement the proposed exemption, and they called for reusable, recyclable or compostable straws to be developed and made available to these groups instead.

20. Some respondents offered suggestions for how access to plastic straws could be made available to those who needed them, while restricting access among the general public. There were two main views: (i) that plastic straws could be provided on prescription or through health and social care services, and (ii) that they should be made available (for example in restaurants, pubs and other hospitality venues) only upon request.

Consideration of future market restrictions

21. Overall, there was strong support for market restrictions on additional single-use plastic items, with more than 94% of respondents in favour. Organisations were slightly less likely to express support for this proposal; however, more than three-quarters (79%) did so. Moreover, 1,902 respondents who submitted responses through the Friends of the Earth Scotland campaign wanted to see market restrictions on further items including plastic wet wipes and plastic tampon applicators. The main opposition to this proposal was from packaging manufacturers and other types of manufacturing organisations.

22. Respondents who supported future restrictions on additional items highlighted the harm caused by single-use plastics – in terms of both long-term environmental damage and littering – and the importance of reducing reliance on plastic as part of a broader move to a 'greener', low carbon economy. Some said action was needed as a matter of urgency, while others favoured a more a phased approach.

23. Respondents who were opposed to or had reservations about additional market restrictions commented that (i) single-use plastic served an important purpose and that effective alternatives were not always available, (ii) other effective ways of dealing with the issue of problematic single-use plastic were already planned or being pursued (e.g., EPR schemes; improved recycling, reuse and composting systems; taxing plastic packaging; etc.); and (iii) non-plastic alternatives could also cause environmental harm.

Environmental, economic and social impacts

24. Just over a quarter of respondents identified environmental, economic or social impacts relating to the proposed market restrictions. Organisations were more likely than individuals to do so.

25. In the main, respondents reflected on the perceived impacts – both positive and negative – related to current or proposed arrangements, without addressing any specific identified gaps in the impact assessments accompanying the consultation paper. They discussed (i) the environmental impacts of alternatives to single-use plastics, (ii) the impact of littering, (iii) the opportunities and challenges for business presented by the proposals, (iv) the need for support for businesses in implementing the proposed changes; (v) the role and influence of 'big business' in achieving change; (vi) the global economy; (vii) impacts on health and wellbeing; (viii) the financial impact on individuals, and (ix) the impacts on equality groups.

Impact of Covid-19

26. A majority of respondents (57%) said the Covid-19 pandemic (Covid) had resulted in changes to the market or wider economy that were not fully accounted for in the consultation. Organisations were more likely than individuals to think this.

27. Respondents thought Covid had brought changes to the economy or to society that had had an impact (or potential impact) on the single-use plastics market, or on the wider aims of the proposed market restrictions. Changes – largely in terms of increased use of single-use plastic, and increased littering and waste – were identified in retail; hospitality and catering; the service sector; health and social care; leisure and recreation; and in people's working arrangements (with large numbers of people working from home). Respondents also identified changes in public attitudes and behaviours, and increased costs for businesses that they thought had potential implications for the future use of single-use plastics and the proposed market restrictions. While there was broad agreement about the changes that had occurred as a result of Covid, there was less agreement about the appropriate response to these changes and the implications for introducing market restrictions on single-use plastic items.

Other comments

28. The final question in the consultation invited respondents to make any other comments relevant to the consultation. Most commonly respondents used their comments to endorse the Scottish Government's proposals on market restrictions and / or to emphasise the need for urgent action in this policy area. These respondents wanted the Scottish Government to 'go further' to address the problem of plastic and to facilitate a move to a more sustainable 'greener' economy more generally. Among other things, respondents called for the (re)introduction of the Circular Economy Bill to the Scottish Parliament. Such comments were made by the 1,902 respondents who took part in the Friends of the Earth Scotland campaign, but they were also made by other respondents as well. Less often, respondents (mainly manufacturing organisations and food, drink, tourism and other business organisations) provided information about ongoing work to improve the sustainability of products, and they stressed the importance of a collaborative approach in progressing work in this area.



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