On Saturday the Scottish Government’s ban on plastic-stemmed cotton buds came into force. Only a small proportion of the plastic we use in Scotland is in cotton buds but this is a really important move for two reasons. Firstly, those annoying plastic sticks are one of the most common items that make their way through the sewage system and end up on our beaches and causing trouble for marine wildlife. Secondly, this is the first time the government have actually banned something to reduce our use of plastic.
The plastic bag levy has been very successful, reducing carrier bag use by around 90% and changing almost everyone’s shopping habits. The proposed latte levy on single-use cups for tea and coffee will also use a financial mechanism to get people to change their behaviour. As will the Deposit Return scheme for all drinks cans and bottles, which will add a small deposit to the price and thereby massively increase recycling rates for these items, creating a supply of clean, high-quality materials for recycling. We need to try to make sure the jobs created are in Scotland, but that’s another story.
Another ban is coming following lots of community campaigning. Plastic straws are likely to be banned across the UK from next April.
Banning things and creating levies and deposits that help people make better choices are great but we need to make more fundamental changes to the way that we use resources in society.
We have had a linear economy where we dig up raw materials, including the oil and gas that make the vast majority of the plastics we use, use loads of energy to turn them into products and chuck them in a landfill or burn them in an incinerator when we’ve finished with them.
This is a hugely wasteful way to use resources which imposes a huge burden on societies and nature around the globe to produce the raw materials and allows plenty of our waste to escape to pollute the environment.
We need to move to a circular economy. This means getting much more use out of every tonne of material that we extract from the natural world, by designing things better and to last longer, repairing things when they break, re-using items and being super efficient at recycling everything we possibly can, keeping materials circulating around the economy for as long as possible before they become waste. Our wasteful use of resources is also a climate change issue. A government agency estimates that delivering a fully circular economy would save Scotland 11 million tonnes of carbon emissions – about a quarter of our current total.
The Scottish Government produced a strategy for a circular economy in 2016 which even won an international award. Now there is to be a Circular Economy Bill with a consultation starting soon and a Bill introduced to the Scottish Parliament in the spring. But time is short before the next election and what we hear makes us think that the Bill will lack ambition.
We want to see an overall target for reducing Scotland use of resources, just like our climate targets. This would drive innovation and change in every sector and around every product. This thinking is already well advanced in the Netherlands. They are aiming to have a fully circular economy by 2050 and have set a target to halve the use of primary raw materials – minerals, fossil fuels and metals – by 2030.
Scotland has a very good reputation for our circular economy thinking but now is the time to make the idea a reality.
A version of this blog appeared in the Scotsman Inside Environment series on 8th October 2019.