Environment

Westminster is ‘failing’ to tackle plastic waste if it seeks to block Scottish recycling scheme

Deposit return schemes have proven successful in many countries across the world.

plastic bottles packed for recycling

The scheme is due to launch in August 2023. (Image: Nareeta Martin/Unsplash)

Campaigners are criticising the UK government after it suggested it could block a recycling scheme in Scotland which will add 20p to the cost of bottles and cans, which consumers can claim back by returning them to be recycled.

Secretary of state for Scotland, Alister Jack, may deny the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) request for a trade exemption from Westminster that would allow the recycling scheme to go ahead.

Lorna Slater, the person heading up the scheme as the circular economy minister for Scotland, said the scheme is likely to “reduce littering by a third and [carbon dioxide] emissions by four million tonnes over 25 years”.

The scheme, which is set to launch on August 16, requires an exemption from the Internal Market Act, which prevents different regulations from applying to the same products in England and Scotland.

A spokesperson for the UK government said: “UK government ministers have received a formal request setting out the scope and rationale for an exemption for the Scottish government’s deposit return scheme.”

“As we have said last week, the request will be carefully and fully considered by ministers at the relevant Whitehall departments.”

Jack has previously criticised the scheme in the House of Commons, stating that it was “bad for businesses” and “bad for stakeholders and consumers”.

Speaking about the exemption needed for the scheme, Jack added: “The exemption bar is very high indeed, otherwise what is the point of the UK internal market?”

Campaigners say that the government is “failing” to tackle plastic waste if the scheme is prevented from going ahead.

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Megan Randles, political campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told the Big Issue: “The Westminster government often claims they’re world leaders in tackling plastic waste but these actions yet again show them failing to fulfil that mantra.”

Randles said deposit return schemes (DRS) are an “important tool in tackling the plastic waste crisis”, pointing out that many European countries like Germany, Finland and Sweden have successfully used them for years.

The government is already planning its own DRS, with environment minister Rebecca Pow previously saying that it aims to “support people who want to do the right thing to help stop damaging plastics polluting our green space or floating in our oceans and rivers”.

But it will not be in place until 2025 and will exclude glass from being returned for recycling. 

Only 70 per cent of drink containers in the UK are recycled – even though people use nearly 14 billion bottles and nine billion cans every year.

plastic bottles
The Scottish government said the DRS would reduce littering by a third. (Image: Nick Fewings/Unsplash)

“If the UK government is committed to their own DRS then it only makes sense for them to allow Scotland to follow through with its own scheme,” Randles said, adding that the government should “stop dithering and delaying the scheme in England”.

Kim Pratt, circular economy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland said that any plan to block the DRS in Scotland are “unacceptable”, and would undermine the work that has gone into preparing for the scheme in the first place.

She told the Big Issue: “Producers of the majority of Scotland’s litter are signed up and prepared to launch the scheme in August and it will be incredibly frustrating if they are stopped from doing so.”

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Senior SNP politicians have previously expressed doubts about the details of the scheme – SNP leadership candidates Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes, and Ash Regan are all against it. 

Forbes said she would support a “pause” to the scheme as it would cause “economic carnage” for businesses while Regan said she would scrap the scheme in its current form and Yousaf said the scheme should provide an exemption to small businesses in its first year.

Under the scheme, drinks producers will be partly responsible for the costs of the scheme by paying a producer fee, charged on each drinks container they put out to sell. The exact cost has not yet been determined. 

Forbes said that businesses should be given “breathing space” from “additional complex bureaucratic requirements” after juggling changes due to Brexit, the pandemic, the energy crisis, and the rising cost of living.

Further criticism centres on how small businesses would cope with the costs associated with forcing all retailers who sell single-use drinks containers to operate a recycling return point.

Slater clarified that “a range of measures have been put in place to support” small businesses and producers, ensuring that any costs will be proportional to the size of the business in a letter published on the Scottish government website.

She wrote: “Only the very largest producers (those making more than 10 million units per year) would be required to underwrite costs.”

The scheme will reimburse 19 per cent of the costs associated with operating a return point and will be serviced by Circularity Scotland, which is the organisation in charge of the scheme.

A poll commissioned by recycling company Tomra found 86 per cent of Scots supported the scheme and 90 per cent of people agreed that littering is a problem in Scotland.

Outgoing first minister Nicola Sturgeon has vowed to move forward with the scheme, with the Scottish government asking for the exemption they needed earlier this month.

What are your thoughts about plastic pollution in the UK? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

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