You would be forgiven for thinking that coronavirus was the only thing on any government’s agenda at present. However, yesterday the Scottish government launched a consultation on banning single-use plastic items.

The general aim is arguably beyond question, but how this will land with the manufacturing and hospitality sectors given the current Covid-19 restrictions they face in Scotland is not.

The proposal is to ban the sale and supply of the following products from 2021:

  • Single-use plastic cutlery (forks, knives, spoons, chopsticks)
  • Single-use plastic plates (plates, trays/platters, bowls)
  • Single-use plastic straws
  • Single-use plastic beverage stirrers
  • Single-use plastic balloon sticks
  • Single-use food containers made of expanded polystyrene
  • Single-use cups and other beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, including their covers and lids
  • All oxo-degradable products.

Moves to stem the use of single-use plastics are not new in Scotland, and these proposals follow a policy line, from the introduction of the 5p levy on plastic carrier bags in 2014, a ban on plastic microbeads since 2018 and on plastic stemmed cotton buds since October 2019, and with the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers from 2022.

The proposals implement provisions of the EU Single Plastics Directive, and also reflect similar developments in England, where a ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and drink stirrers took effect this month on a phased basis.  The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published guidance on the ban in England last month.

The Scottish proposals reflect some startling statistics.  According to the consultation, the economic cost of single use plastics is £78 million per annum and 20% of all terrestrial litter in Scotland is plastic, with 9 out of 10 items found on beaches containing plastic.

The consultation is perhaps most ambitious (or controversial) in raising the prospect of significant extensions to these restrictions in due course.  These cover items of concern to Marine Scotland (plastic wet wipes and plastic tampon applicators in particular), and products listed in the UK Plastics Pact, which covers a multitude of every day packaging: plastic bags, plastic film packaging, multi layer plastics, multi pack rings for canned drinks, fruit and veg net bags, secondary wrapping for multi-buys, PVC clingfilm, bottle tops and caps, single use drinks bottles, non-recyclable coloured plastics, fruit and veg punnets and trays, internal plastic trays such as for premium biscuits, disposable plastic cups, fruit and veg stickers, plastic cup lids, plastic coffee pods, milk and salad single pots and sachets, tear off tamper evidence strips, and teabags.

The goal is to ensure reuse, redesign or smarter recycling of these products by 2025.  When you think about how pervasive the use of all these items is in the day to day lives of every household that is a very ambitious target.

The Scottish government also lays out ambitions to introduce other aspects of the SUP Directive into Scotland, again setting the bar high.  These include:

  • Prioritising the introduction of charges for single use cups – a working group starts next year
  • ensuring plastic caps and lids remain attached to containers on disposal
  • The aim for PET bottles to contain 50% recycled content by 2025
  • new labelling on certain single use items about littering and disposal (sanitary wear, wet wipes, tobacco products with filters, drinks cups)
  • Support for an extended producer responsibility scheme – a consultation will start in 2021 for this UK wide scheme to make producers responsible for awareness raising measures and litter clean up for many of the products previously mentioned
  • Increasing the carrier bag charge to 10p at the earliest opportunity.

The consultation also notes the proposal for a new governance body, Environmental Standards Scotland, to replace relevant institutions at EU level and ensure public authorities are correctly applying environmental law and that the law is effective.

The far reaching changes proposed in the consultation do need attention if producers are to prepare for them. These sorts of changes would need considerable time for research, testing and implementation.

The question is: how engaged can industry be when they are grappling with the immediate and existential threat of coronavirus? It remains to be seen whether the consultation receives the level of attention it deserves; or whether these issues will of necessity be parked whilst industry deals with the here and now.

The consultation is open until 4 January 2021, you can view and comment on it here.