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.

7 The impact of Covid-19 (Q7)

7.1 The consultation recognised the additional challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic to bringing forward the proposed changes, because of the increased reliance on single-use items which have been utilised as a means of suppressing transmission of the virus and support the continued functioning of society. The consultation paper noted that while the long-term damage to the environment caused by this approach could not be ignored, any changes had to be carefully managed and inclusively delivered. Question 7 asked respondents for their views on whether the implications of Covid-19 had been fully accounted for in the proposals put forward in the consultation:

Question 7: Do you believe the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in changes to the market or wider economy that are not fully accounted for through this consultation? [Yes / No]

Please give reasons.

7.2 Table 7.1 shows that, overall, a majority of respondents (57%) thought that the Covid-19 pandemic (hereafter referred to as 'Covid') had resulted in changes to the market or wider economy that were not fully accounted for in the consultation. However, organisations were more likely than individuals to think this (83% vs 54% respectively).

Table 7.1: Q7 – Do you believe the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in changes to the market or wider economy that are not fully accounted for through this consultation?
Yes No Total
Respondent type n % n % n %
Environmental charities, third sector and community sector organisations 23 85% 4 15% 27 100%
Packaging manufacturers and other types of manufacturing organisations 12 100% 0% 12 100%
Food, drink, tourism, and other business organisations 8 73% 3 27% 11 100%
Public sector organisations 8 80% 2 20% 10 100%
Environmental consultancies and resource management organisations 2 50% 2 50% 4 100%
Other organisations 2 100% 0% 2 100%
Total organisations 55 83% 11 17% 66 100%
Total individuals 332 54% 281 46% 613 100%
Total (organisations and individuals) 387 57% 292 43% 679 100%

7.3 A total of 450 respondents – 70 organisations and 380 individuals – provided comments at Question 7.

7.4 The following sections discuss the Covid-related changes identified by respondents, and the implications of those changes for policy in this area. The following points should be noted about the analysis:

  • It was common for respondents to offer views on the perceived impact of Covid, without necessarily linking this explicitly to changes in the market or wider economy that were not fully accounted for in the consultation. It was also common for respondents to repeat points made by themselves or others at earlier questions. The analysis presented below gives a broad overview of the full range of the views expressed but, as far as possible, focuses on issues with greater relevance to the market and the wider economy.
  • Irrespective of whether they answered 'yes' or 'no' to the closed part of the question, respondents often made similar points in their comments. Thus, the sections below do not deal separately with the views of those who answered 'yes' or 'no' (or who answered neither 'yes' or 'no'). (Note, however, that respondents who answered 'no' were more likely to say they were not sure, didn't know or didn't feel qualified to comment.)

Identification of Covid-related changes

7.5 Respondents of all types were agreed that Covid had brought changes to the economy or to society in general that had had an impact (or potential impact) on the single-use plastics market, or on the wider aims of the proposed market restrictions. The changes identified were wide ranging and related to the following spheres of life:

  • Retail: Respondents highlighted an increased prevalence of individually wrapped / pre-packaged goods, plastic packaging and plastic bags, in place of packaging-free or paper packaging arrangements. The rise in online shopping and greater reliance on home delivery of groceries were also seen as major contributory factors in driving the use of single-use plastics. Less often, respondents suggested that the pandemic had led to an increase in local shopping from independent businesses, with less reliance on pre-packaged goods.
  • Hospitality and catering: There was widespread comment on the increased reliance on single-use items, and a reluctance to accept bring-your-own cups in the hospitality and catering trade, said to be driven by concerns for customer and staff safety, and the need to meet social distancing requirements. This was also identified as a feature of public sector and workplace catering services in, for example, schools, colleges and hospitals. Respondents also commented on the increased importance of the takeaway trade during periods of more stringent restrictions, and the related increased use of takeaway food and drink containers. However, some thought the pandemic had led to less consumption of takeaway food (and packaged food) with people staying at home to eat, and less use of single-use plastic in restaurants and cafes which had not been able to operate.
  • The service sector: The increased use of single-use PPE and wipes in businesses such as hair salons and nail bars was noted.
  • Health and social care: Respondents commented on the increased use of single-use PPE (and other items) in healthcare settings. Although some felt that such items had an essential role in such settings, others thought that steps could be taken to reduce reliance on single-use items.
  • Working arrangements: The changes to working patterns, with large numbers of people working from home, were said to have had an impact on some behaviours – e.g., reduced takeaway sales in city centres related to commuter and lunchtime trade; and increased use of domestic kerbside recycling services.
  • Leisure and recreation: Increased outdoor activity was said to have led to an increase in littering.

7.6 Additionally, respondents of all types identified changes related to health and hygiene concerns which cut across all sectors and spheres of life. Most frequently respondents (individuals in particular) highlighted the use of disposable masks and gloves for non-clinical reasons and noted the significant contribution of these items to littering. Respondents also noted increased use of wipes, cleaning products and sanitiser in plastic bottles in workplaces, customer-facing businesses and homes, all of which were seen as contributing to increased use of single-use plastics.

7.7 From a broader perspective, respondents identified general impacts related to Covid that had potential implications for single-use plastics and the proposed market restrictions. For example:

  • Public attitudes and behaviours: Respondents noted (understandable) public concerns about infection control and risks to personal health as a result of the pandemic which had led to increased use of single-use plastics (albeit that some said that this was not always justified by the scientific evidence). Some said this had reversed previous progress in terms of reducing use of plastic bags or normalising 'bring-your-own' cups. Some also argued that behaviour change encouraged by government guidance and business practices during the pandemic could become a 'habit' that was difficult to change, at least in the short term. Less often, however, respondents noted an increased interest in, and awareness of, environmental issues and a wish to take steps to protect the environment.
  • Business impacts: Respondents noted the significant increase in costs (as a result of putting Covid-secure measures in place), and simultaneous fall in revenue for many businesses as a result of Covid-related restrictions and reduced footfall over the period of the pandemic. This had affected a wide range of business in all sectors, with many said to be struggling or facing major challenges – organisational respondents in the food, drink, tourism and other business sectors said that recovery would take some time.

Implications of Covid-related changes

7.8 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 the introduction of the proposed market restrictions on single-use plastic items. However, there were two broad perspectives offered:

7.9 Most commonly, respondents acknowledged the impacts that Covid had had (on the use of single-use plastic, on attitudes and behaviours, on businesses, on the economy, etc.), but thought this did not change the need to take action on single-use plastics. This was the main view amongst environmental charities, third sector and community sector organisations, public sector bodies and individuals, who made three main points:

  • The environmental damage caused by single-use plastic remained the same, and there had been 'no material long-term change' to the situation regarding the need to reduce or eliminate the use of single-use plastic. Thus, the case for the proposed market restrictions (and other future policy action in this area) was unaffected.
  • The issues highlighted by Covid (increased use of single-use plastic, increased littering, poverty and inequality) increased the need to move towards a 'greener' more circular economy.
  • Covid should not be used as an excuse (by business or industry lobbyists) to not act or to delay taking action.

7.10 However, respondents in this group nevertheless often thought it was important that steps were taken to address public attitudes and behaviours and the concerns of businesses in the light of Covid, and advocated the following:

  • Public information and education to (i) reassure people on health and hygiene issues and increase consumer (and business) confidence about the use of less environmentally damaging options (e.g., soap and water rather than wipes and sanitiser, reusable rather than disposable catering items, loose rather than pre-packaged goods), and (ii) to (re-)establish the case for a move away from single-use plastics and bring about the required culture change regarding the throwaway society
  • Action to tackle littering and waste disposal in terms of public education campaigns, improved recycling and waste disposal options, and more robust enforcement action
  • Appropriate information, guidance, support and transition arrangements to help businesses respond to the proposed market restrictions and make a successful move away from single-use plastics in what was acknowledged to be a difficult time for small businesses in particular.

7.11 Some in this group thought that Covid had, in fact, created a positive environment for action. These respondents pointed to a raised awareness amongst the public of the need for social and environmental change, and the demonstrated capacity of both government and the public and private sectors to respond rapidly to a new and challenging situation. This group thought there was an opportunity to capitalise on this in terms of future plans.

7.12 A contrasting perspective was offered by food, drink, tourism and other business organisations, packaging manufacturers and other manufacturing organisations and some individuals who made two different points about the implications of the pandemic for the proposed market restrictions:

  • Firstly, they said that the pandemic had reinforced the important role that (single-use) plastics played in health, hygiene and infection control – and would continue to play in the future. The point was made that action against single-use plastics at this point in time would reduce capacity in the industry to respond to increased demands of this type in the future.
  • Secondly, respondents said that the difficulties faced by businesses as a result of Covid meant that this was not a good time to proceed with additional legislation or regulations that would place further burdens on the business community. While some asked for a 'moratorium' or delay in taking forward the proposed market restrictions, others called for sensitive implementation or a phased approach, with appropriate information and support for businesses, with transition arrangements and adequate lead in times to allow for development activity and adjustment of busines models.

7.13 Finally, some respondents (including some who ticked 'no' at the closed question) said that the identified impacts would be short-term, or that the challenges presented could be addressed.



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