Debate: Stemming the plastic tide
Cabinet Secretary for the Environment Roseanna Cunningham
07 February 2018
I’m sure I’m not the only one in this Chamber who has spent the last six weeks or so surveying their own plastic usage and becoming dismayed at the ubiquity of plastic in our daily lives.
We are living through an extraordinary moment of individual and collective self-scrutiny, clearly influenced by all that we have seen on Blue Planet 2.
Having an intellectual understanding of the damage caused by plastics in our environment and seeing the graphic and distressing consequences of it in the real world are two vastly different things. The academic has moved to the real and everyone has woken up to the need for action.
As individuals, as a society, as a government - there can be no doubt that we’ve reached a turning point in public acceptance of the need for radical change.
But that change won’t be easy. Plastic has become a fundamental part of our lives. The pen I write with, the credit card I use, the takeaway coffee cups and disposable cutlery. We wrap our food in it, store our food in it, build with it. It would be all too easy to feel overwhelmed at the challenge. We might not be able to eradicate all plastics from our lives, but that shouldn’t prevent us removing its usage where we can.
The best way to approach it is, I think, the simplest way. To return to the Reduce, ReUse, Recycle mantra.
First reducing at source – through changes in manufacturing and production and also reducing demand by changing consumer behaviour.
There is a role for government, yes. But also for manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Legislation might work – but, whether we like it or not, legislation takes time.
The #NaeStrawAtAw campaign is leading the way, working faster than we could, showing what can be achieved when an idea’s time has come and people get behind it.
We are already acting to reduce use of single-use plastics and directly address marine litter. Last month, I announced our intention to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic stemmed cotton buds in Scotland, building on recent steps taken to ban the sale of rinse-off personal care products containing microbeads.
I took this decision because of compelling evidence about the harm that these plastic stems are doing to our natural environment and because alternative, biodegradable options are readily available.
These are just two items in what is a long list of the types of litter washing up on our shores;
- Wet wipes
- Plastic cotton bud stems
- Drinks containers
- Packaging from crisps, sandwiches and sweets
- Bottle caps
- And other plastic in the form of large items and small fragments, barely recognisable, including nurdles
So there’s our starter for ten. However, in taking action, it is vitally important that we do not inadvertently disadvantage groups within society or damage the environment by encouraging the use of an alternative that itself raises environmental concerns. For example, there are legitimate concerns from disabled people which we must all hear and pay heed to. And we need to recognize the benefits that the use of plastics brings to many. Single person households, low income families, older people all benefit from having affordable access to hygienically wrapped, prepared fruit and vegetables.
So I will also meet with disabled people and representatives from other groups to help ensure our thinking on these matters is grounded in real world understanding.
I can also announce that I will appoint a disability adviser to the expert panel I am setting up as part of our Programme for Government commitment to provide advice on action to help reduce use of single use items.
This will ensure the Panel takes a fully rounded approach and considers all the evidence and consequences before making recommendations.
In some areas, it is not clear what powers are available to this Parliament to tackle issues – some may be reserved.
We therefore need to develop the evidence base quickly to allow us to act in a planned, considered and co-ordinated way on the things that will make the greatest difference.
I will refer items such as plastic straws and disposable cups to the expert panel to consider how to reduce their use.
So, cutting the use of plastic where possible (reducing) and not throwing away (possible reuse or recycling). The issue of single use plastic which I’ve just discussed is probably the biggest part of this challenge too but other plastics which may not be single use are also a problem. Keeping items in circulation does make a difference. There’s also a challenge from hidden plastic such as the substances in cigarette papers and teabags which may have surprised many.
When you really can’t or won’t hang on to that item any longer - where does it go, how is it treated? Any deposit return system we introduce will have to provide a route through which drinks containers can be collected with minimal contamination for high value recycling.
That’s the reason we are taking the time to develop a Scottish solution rather than import a model from elsewhere. Later in the summer I expect to consult on a range of options for the new system, and the types of containers that it will collect.
I want to see an ambitious, modern deposit return scheme that covers not only plastic but potentially cans and glass bottles so that we are capturing as much material as possible and sending it for high value recycling.
Rather than taking actions in a piecemeal way, we must grasp their full potential – not just to drive environmental benefit but to build a truly resource efficient Scottish economy which harnesses new technology, creates new jobs and develops new skills.
That means catalysing the innovation and infrastructure in Scotland is required to make full use of materials. Innovations such as Project Beacon combine a variety of new technologies to sort and process different types of plastic. The project will also create alternatives to heavy fuel oil for heating and transport uses in rural and off-grid areas.
Together, the SMEs behind Project Beacon have been awarded over £1m from our Circular Economy Investment Fund and is exactly the type of approach that Scotland can and must encourage– keeping plastics out of landfill and the litter stream, while generating jobs and growth.
While we must do all we can to stem the plastic tide lapping at Scotland’s shores, plastics of course are a global problem. A global problem of course deserves global action and we are determined that Scotland plays its part.
Through their focus on clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, climate action and life below the water, the UN Sustainable Development Goals all point to the vital importance of wide, collective action to tackle plastic litter.
A global problem requires global action and we are determined that Scotland plays its part.
Later this year, we will host an OSPAR Intersessional Correspondence Group for Marine Litter, bringing together international scientists to explore the scientific complexities around this issue and ultimately, figure out what we can do about it.
As announced in the Programme for Government, we will also hold an international conference in 2019 to discuss our collective action on Marine Litter.
I also welcome the EU’s proposal to require that all single use plastics be reusable or easily recycled by 2030. This is exactly the sort of market signal that industry needs to invest in the research and development to deliver a step change in recycling performance. I have no hesitation in signing Scotland up to this vision, Brexit or no Brexit.
Presiding Officer, we are being reminded daily that people make change happen. From Aberdeenshire to Ayrshire, inspiring campaigns and grassroots action are revolutionising attitudes without the intervention of politicians.
People like the children of Sunnyside Primary and communities like Ullapool who are tackling plastic straw use head on. And the P3 children in Our Lady’s Primary in my own constituency with their #WildBottleSighting Campaign.
I want to pay tribute to every individual who takes action to stem our plastic tide – the people who pick up litter on their way to work, who support community and beach cleans.
And to recognise the valuable work of charities including the Marine Conservation Society and Fidra for organising events such as the Great Nurdle Hunt which collected over half a million plastic nurdles during an 8 hour beach clean on the Firth of Forth.
Nurdles and beach litter in general is a hugely important issue. That is why we have committed £500,000 to begin to address litter sinks around the coastline of Scotland.
And Presiding Officer I can also announce that on 18 June, I will host a national summit on marine litter in Oban. The summit will bring together manufacturers and retailers, marine and environmental stakeholders and crucially, people who live in our coastal communities who are most affected by marine litter. The summit will aim to raise awareness, increase our understanding of the issue and help identify and develop actions we can all take to tackle this issue.
We cannot and must not leave this issue to “someone else” to tackle. Plastics is not someone else’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem.
In determining to end our throwaway culture, and taking a range of actions to reduce, reuse and recycle, we can ensure that we do all we can to clean up our act and also contribute our resources, knowledge and experience to help address the global plastics problem.
All around Scotland, communities, individuals and charities are doing amazing things – big and small, organised and spontaneous. We can be proud that when Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 struck a chord on a Sunday night, Scotland stepped into action on the Monday morning.
And we know that many were already tackling this. These campaigns and actions have created an energy for change that we mustn’t waste. We must take an evidence-based approach, consider where further legislation is needed but not wait for the law to change if we can just get on and change our behaviours as suppliers and consumers.
Scotland has been voted the most beautiful country in the world. It is our duty and privilege to protect and enhance that beauty, and take bold steps where they are available to us, to stem the plastic tide.
I move the motion in my name.