This post is by Kim Pratt, circular economy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland.
From today, Scotland has banned single use plastics. With this, it aims to move towards a circular economy, but changing unsustainable habits one product at a time isn’t going to be fast enough. It will take a more radical approach to change our throwaway society.
Businesses in Scotland can no longer manufacture or supply some single use plastic items, including cups, plates, straws and cutlery. An inclusive approach to the consultation, one that should serve as a template for future legislative efforts, means an exception has been made for plastic straws to support independent living for those who need them.
Banning single use plastic isn’t the whole solution
From the litter on our streets to the piles of plastic on our beaches, single use plastics are bad for the environment. However, banning them is not the simple solution that it seems. This becomes clear once you look at the evidence.
Life cycle analysis is an internationally recognised method used to measure the environmental impacts of product and services. It should be a vital tool for any policy maker wishing to make environmentally sound decisions. In 2021, academics used it to compare single use packaging to reusable alternatives. Takeaway boxes made of polystyrene, known in the industry as ‘clamshells’, are one of the items now banned in Scotland. The study found that they were a high carbon packaging choice due to the extraction of fossil fuels required to make them. Refillable alternatives had significantly lower impacts.
However, when businesses in Scotland were asked how they planned to replace polystyrene clamshells, most pointed to single use fibre-based containers, made of material such as bagasse, a biodegradable by-product of sugar cane. The life cycle analysis showed that the carbon impacts of bagasse clamshells were virtually the same as those made from polystyrene. This is because bagasse is heavier and denser, leading to higher emissions from transport and disposal.
In this case, banning a specific product means swapping one single use item for another, resulting in disruption to businesses across the country but virtually no carbon savings. While plastic pollution and climate change crises are often conflated in the public mind, this ban is really just a litter policy and not, as it should be, also a climate one.
And it’s not just takeaway boxes. Plastic knives and forks, coffee cup stirrers and straws all have single use non-plastic alternatives. While these different materials might not have the same environmental impacts, they do still have impacts. As well as greenhouse gas emissions, biodegradable products often have high land impacts, with drastic consequences for biodiversity. Our warming world has run out of time for making such costly mistakes.
We need to value materials properly
What would a different policy approach, which would encourage reuse rather than single use, look like? Because banning bagasse next is not going to get us very far. The cheapest option will always win in an economy designed to value profit rather than people and the planet. And, in our economic system, single use is cheaper and easier than reuse. Instead, we need a system which values materials properly, where the material savings of going for reuse would make such options more attractive than throwaway items, to businesses and consumers alike.
Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. A more fundamental transformation is required. Consultation on a Circular Economy Bill has recently begun in Scotland and offers a chance for system change. Targets based on Scotland’s consumption of materials, regardless of whether they are extracted in Scotland or the rest of the world, are vital. Like life cycle analysis, a consumption-based approach allows for more informed, whole system focused decision making. Setting statutory consumption-based targets, a step which the Netherlands and Sweden have already been bold enough to take, would be the first indication that Scotland is ready to take responsibility for its global impact. This will require leadership from the Scottish Government and collaboration from every sector. It remains to be seen if Scotland is ready to do everything necessary to throw away its single use past.