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The zero-waste journey is in the bag

Much of what we do at Zero Waste Scotland is about encouraging a change in mindset.

The goal is to shift the way ‘waste’ is perceived, driving a move away from our throwaway society as the value of materials – from food scraps to electronics to cans and bottles – is realised.

In June, the Scottish Government launched its national litter strategy, outlining measures intended to tackle this blight on our country. Integral to the strategy is the concept of thinking about litter in a different way. It is not just about it being an eyesore; it is also about the loss of resources – the energy, raw materials, water and human effort – that go into creating and transporting items that end up wasted.

This change in mindset has a good track record in the recycling sector, where we have seen a shift take place as waste is increasingly seen as a valuable resource that can benefit the wider economy rather than a liability, draining the public purse and limiting opportunity. Facing up to litter is as important to our zero-waste ambitions as the circular economy and resource efficiency.

That is why I am delighted that legislation in Scotland is tackling perhaps the most symbolic icon of a throwaway society: the humble carrier bag. On 20 October 2014, legislation came into force that requires all retailers, of whatever size, to charge a minimum of 5p for every single-use carrier bag, including those made from paper, plastic and some plant-based materials.

The average carrier bag is used for about 20 minutes before being discarded. At best, it is returned to a supermarket collection point for recycling but, more commonly, we know they end up languishing in landfill sites or, even opinion worse, as litter. The sight of a carrier bag tangled in a bush, blowing in a tree or half-buried on the beach has become so common that we barely notice any more. It has become part of the scenery.

A 5p charge may not seem like much but, with a value attached, will we be so quick to take a new bag when shopping or so quick to throw it away without reusing it? There is huge potential to change attitudes and behaviour.

This could be the start of a paradigm shift as we consider adopting reuse habits into our day-to-day lives. Materials once thought of simply as ‘waste’ will suddenly find their value unlocked. A surge in reusable bags could spark interest in reusable cups, buying secondhand or repairing damaged clothes, furniture and electronics.

While we have yet to see if this is the case, I have certainly been encouraged at the level of enthusiasm from retailers concerning the charge. Zero Waste Scotland has been supporting retailers to prepare for the charge, with guidance available on our website.

And while the proceeds of the charge belong to the retailer, we have been encouraging them to sign up to our Carrier Bag Commitment, agreeing to give all net proceeds to good causes. In return, we will provide a central reporting portal and access to bespoke communications materials.

More than 150 retailers have expressed an interest and we are in discussions with a number of others, as well as with trade bodies such as the Scottish Grocers Federation and the Scottish Retail Consortium. The response has been great, and retailers are finding their own ways to make moving to the charge worthwhile.

For example, high-street clothing retailer Superdry ran a staff survey to decide where its proceeds were going, while the Cooperative Group has been focusing on in-store communications to ensure that its customers understand the charge.

With all of these forces lined up – a strong policy to drive change, the backing of the retail sector and a change in behaviour from customers – we could find that the impact of the charge does not stop with the carrier bag but starts with it.   

Iain Gulland, director, Zero Waste Scotland

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