Analysis

Punching down on plastic

by | 16 Nov 2021

The Scottish Government's steps to crack down on single use plastics are anything but courageous, dodging big business and instead targeting small businesses

In the aftermath of the remarkable and sustained PR campaigns promoting a single politician throughout COP26, the Scottish Government’s press releases announcing its ‘green leadership’ have tailed off now that the dignitaries have left town. This gives us ten seconds to stop and look at what is in them.

Today let’s just have a glance at one and see what it tells us. On 11 November the Scottish Government announced that it was taking “action on single use plastics”. The media release contained 28 words followed by two paragraphs of quotes. It involves new regulations from next year.

To find out what this actually covers you therefore need to delve directly into the regulations. It is worth just being explicit about what is being banned in this new move and so (with a minor edit for brevity) this is the comprehensive list of what is being banned:

  • single-use expanded polystyrene beverage cups including their covers and lids
  • single-use expanded polystyrene beverage containers including their caps and lids
  • single-use expanded polystyrene food containers;
  • single-use plastic cutlery including forks, knives, spoons and chopsticks
  • single-use plastic plates
  • single-use plastic beverage stirrers
  • single-use plastic straws (where the straws are supplied to an end-user)
  • single-use plastic balloon sticks

Expanded polystyrene is a very specific product. This is the material of an old-school plastic cup for tea that you’d be served at a burger van or the box in which you might get fish and chips. Plastic cutlery is what you might get with chips and curry sauce or a kebab. Plastic chopsticks are obviously mainly from Chinese restaurants. Plastic balloon sticks are probably mostly sold by street traders.

It is also worth therefore being clear what isn’t being banned here. The multi-composite plastic film-lined cups used by corporate coffee shops is safe. The plastic containers used by supermarkets all remain untouched by this move. The single-use expanded polystyrene used by Amazon in its packaging is not covered.

In fact few big businesses still use expanded polystyrene in catering products so will be virtually unaffected by these moves. On the other hand, independent small businesses like the aforementioned burger vans, chip shops, Indian and Chinese restaurants and street vendors will find a large proportion of their core business materials will become illegal as of next year.

The Scottish Government wishes to be seen ‘punching’ on environmental policies but it is very clear that it only want to punch in one direction – downwards

This was consulted on in late October 2020 and the initial proposal was to include ‘oxo-degradable plastic products’. These are a kind of plastic which claims to be biodegradable but in fact mainly breaks down into smaller plastic fragments. It is used in things like plastic bottles, blister packs, caps and lids.

Which is to say that banning oxo-degradable plastics would have hit corporations and big businesses which are the primary users of these materials. These therefore fail to make it into the final regulations because “this is a complex and rapidly changing area and as such the Scottish Government is currently collecting further information before taking a final decision”.

Compare the pace at which these regulatory changes have taken place, each of which involves a major and total ban, and the snail’s pace at which the Deposit Return Scheme has crawled its way through government machinery. It was introduced a full 18 months before the new regulations but implementation has been serially delayed and will now not come into effect until after the plastic ban.

Is it even worth pointing out that the Deposit Return Scheme will impact on big business as much as if not more than small businesses?

This is the reality of the Scottish Government’s approach. To provide some thin veneer of justification for its increasingly grandiose self-promotion as a ‘climate leader’ it wishes to be seen ‘punching’ on environmental policies. It is very clear that it only want to punch in one direction – downwards.

Small businesses who can easily be ignored (and regularly are) become the target. When minor measures are attached which would inconvenience big business, these are removed before implementation.

It is also to be noted that there is a very specific social class profile of the businesses which are being targetted here. They are overwhelmingly businesses associated with working class communities. Affluent Scotland’s aspirational corporate coffee shops are protected, working class Scotland’s carry out food businesses are shown no mercy.

Scotland is not a climate leader, it is a leader in self-promotion, tokenism and picking only on those unable to fight back effectively.

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