We are still using too much plastic in our food packaging in Scotland. Every year in the UK, over 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging enters the consumer market. On average, each person in Scotland produces around 400 lbs of packaging waste annually. Indeed, around 40% of all plastics and 50% of all paper produced are destined for packaging. Some of the most widely used plastics are non-recyclable, while others complicate the recycling process. But confronted with a large quantity of packaging materials, it is difficult for consumers to know what do to. The campaign group ReThink Plastic has stated that food and drink companies are the worst offenders for plastic pollution, with “Coca-Cola remaining consistently the world’s worst plastic polluter by a significant margin, followed by PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Mondelēz International”.

In Scotland, some of the larger coffee shops, fast food chains and outlets who sell drinks in disposable paper cups have been told to provide dedicated bins to collect and recycle their waste by 2024, while all packaging will have to be clearly labelled so that consumers know what to recycle correctly. Meanwhile in England the government is seeking to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and HM Treasury are seeking to ‘design out’ unnecessary and difficult to recycle packaging from the recycling stream and make it easier for households and businesses to recycle their packaging waste. The Scottish government should follow suit. Under the UK-wide plans, producers will be responsible for the waste created by their products, ensuring that more packaging is made recyclable or reusable, cutting the amount of waste that is currently sent to landfill or incineration and reducing litter on our streets, parks and beaches.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland are also considering the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), that would see consumers asked to pay a deposit of between 10p and 20p on drinks containers, including plastic bottles, steel and aluminium cans and glass bottles. The deposit would be refunded when the items are returned for recycling. DRS schemes have had contrasting rates of success across the EU. In Scandinavian countries the schemes have achieved high recycling rates, while in countries such as France and Belgium, DRS schemes have been rejected due to concerns on their inefficiency. It would certainly be worth considering a DRS scheme for Scotland.

In Brussels, the European Commission has just published a list of proposals for a new packaging law that has caused uproar in the food and drink sector, with plans for reusable packaging including a target for 5% of wine bottles to be reused by 2030 and 15% by 2040. Only 5% of plastic in packaging came from recycled sources in 2019, according to industry group Plastics Europe and recyclers face an uphill battle to sell secondary materials in a market dominated by cheaper and higher-quality virgin plastic supplies. To tackle this, Brussels is expected to boost the demand for recycled plastic by broadening recycled content targets from plastic bottles to all plastic packaging.  Despite Brexit, it is hoped that the UK will follow the EU’s example. The Westminster and Scottish governments can either send a strong signal to the packaging industry that encourages them to move towards waste-free and resource protection practices or they can maintain the status quo, with business-as-usual and wasteful practices. Ambitious targets are necessary if we are to tackle this problem. Greater reuse will reduce energy and resource use and lead to less waste and CO2 emissions.

Finally, although recycling is better for the environment than sending our rubbish to landfill, it still creates carbon emissions through the recycling process. So, the best thing we can do is to reduce the number of products we consume and try to reuse what we already have.