Packaging is key to a cleaner future

Iain Gulland

By Iain Gulland, chief executive at Zero Waste Scotland

AS we continue to take steps back to normality following the pandemic, Scotland’s rural and green areas are expected to see an increase in visitors over the coming months. With the school holidays upon us and staycations booming, our beauty spots must be protected from the blight of littering.

As part of our Scotland is Stunning campaign, Zero Waste Scotland is asking anyone enjoying a day trip or staycation to take their litter home with them or bin it, but wouldn’t it be better if there was less of this litter in the first place?

The most commonly littered items in Scotland are typically packaging for items consumed on-the-go, food and drinks packaging being amongst the top littered items in Scotland.

Whilst it would be great to just eliminate packaging so there is less potential for litter, there’s no getting away from the fact that we do need a certain amount of packaging to protect and preserve products. It serves an important purpose in protecting goods and keeping food fresh. Many businesses are already taking steps to reduce packaging waste, but there is still work to do.

77% of Scots are concerned about the volume of single-use items and single-use packaging we go through in Scotland because of the negative impact that this has on the environment.

Not only that, most of Scotland is concerned about litter levels in their local area – a quarter of people see it as a serious problem and a third of the population have seen an increase in litter since the pandemic started. Littering is a systemic and problematic issue that must be met head on. We need to become more sustainable, now.

The current system for managing packaging waste via Packaging Waste Recovery Notes (PRNs) doesn’t address the cost of littering.  Local authorities bear most of the costs for collecting household waste and picking up littered packaging.

However, change is coming.

A UK-wide second stage consultation on introducing a new extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme for packaging recently closed in June. The new scheme would mean that producers pay for the full cost of dealing with packaging at the end of its life both from households and businesses, which includes removing litter from public land.

As litter falls within scope of the full net cost of managing packaging waste, this means producers will be responsible for litter payments. Making producers responsible for packaging litter costs will place a clear incentive for them to take steps to reduce the occurrence of their packaging in the litter stream.

The proposed new scheme would ensure producers are not only responsible for the cost of clean-up from public land; but also more litter prevention measures such as on-the-go recycling, communication campaigns at a national and local level and increased monitoring to understand where litter arises.

In addition, the ‘polluter pays principle’ of the packaging EPR scheme is hoped to lead to better packaging design in the first place to minimise costs, which will help to improve the recyclability and reuse of packaging, resulting in less waste.

The scheme is incredibly exciting and could be a catalyst for meaningful change in the way packaging is created. Ultimately, we hope it will reduce the volume of packaging that ends up as waste or littered.

We are one step closer to tackling the throwaway culture in which we live, helping to shift Scotland towards a circular economy. Preventing litter is everyone’s responsibility, whether you are a producer, business owner, or consumer. We all have a part to play in driving real, sustainable change.

Scotland is stunning, let’s keep it that way.