COMMENT: Plastic messaging misses the mark

Scotland’s single-use plastic bans come into force (for real) on Friday but the FPA has done little to help businesses prepare. By David Burrows.

In June, regulations came into force in Scotland that restricted the manufacture and supply of plastic cutlery, plates and drinks stirrers, as well as food containers, cups and lids made of expanded polystyrene. The bans cover a vast amount of single-use items: 300 million plastic straws, 276 million pieces of cutlery, 50 million plates and 66 million polystyrene food containers. Both plastics made from fossil fuels and compostable plastics were within scope of the bans, which brought the country largely in line with the EU’s Single-use Plastics Directive (SuPD). Or so we thought.

As Footprint reported at the time, the rules were difficult to actually enforce given a loophole in the Internal Market Act (IMA), which allowed suppliers to continue selling banned items through the ‘mutual recognition principle for goods’. Basically, Scotland’s new regulations wouldn’t apply to any products which are produced or first imported into another part of the UK, and which can be lawfully supplied in that part of the UK. 

Some packaging manufacturers jumped on this as an opportunity to keep selling their wares south of the border. There was a bit of political wrangling too, with Scotland keen to crack on and follow the EU’s lead on environmental regulations while England dithered. Lorna Slater, Scotland’s circular economy minister, said it was “wholly unacceptable” that green regulations can be put at risk by the IMA – an Act the UK government “imposed without our consent”. 

This saga has certainly created confusion but the likes of the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) haven’t helped the situation, or their members, by stirring things up. Sales of banned items could continue until the SI was in place but it’s hardly ethical or sensible. The FPA has to defend its members but in this case its messaging over the past few months has given many businesses false hope that this loophole could stay open, perhaps even indefinitely. 

None of the noises coming from Holyrood ever suggested that was the case. “The Scottish government has been clear that the ban would be fully effective as soon as the UK government concluded the legislative procedures relating to the Internal Market Act,” said a spokesperson in a statement to Footprint.

Late in July, a statutory instrument was signed that excluded the bans from the IMA from August 12th. This finally provided certainty for businesses and consumers, said Scotland’s circular economy minister Lorna Slater. FPA members that bought into stories this was not the case have now been left with unsold stock and a financial headache.

This perhaps explains why the FPA went on the offensive again, arguing that large stocks of banned packaging are likely to be found in warehouses “for some time to come”. The plastic cutlery, plates and cups “can’t be given to charities, for example to feed the homeless or refugees in camps on the Ukraine border”, it said in a statement. Do these charities have the infrastructure to deal with this packaging? Do they not deserve the ‘more sustainable’ packaging the ban is supposed to support?

The FPA even used the example of one packaging firm to complain about the “blow” the ban brings to foodservice businesses already facing higher costs. “[…] to add insult to injury, another cost is being forced upon our customers because they have to write off perfectly usable packaging rather than be given a reasonable time to make good use of it,” said Ian Queen from Marshall Wilson, a disposable packaging firm.

Times are tough but suggestions that these bans have caught the sector unaware are frankly ridiculous. The new regulations were passed by the Scottish Parliament in November 2021 with a scheduled implementation date of June 1st 2022. That six-month grace period was agreed at the request of industry partners so that businesses had time to plan (which many have). Specific messaging encouraging businesses to use up their remaining stock and avoid ordering more was included in the Zero Waste Scotland communications campaign that followed (there were radio ads, webinars, tweets and digital ads). 

But the sector has actually had far longer to prepare for these bans. It was way back in September 2019, in the 2019-20 programme for government, when the intentions were laid out in black and white. “We have taken action to reduce the use of plastic cotton buds and microbeads and will take further action by banning more problematic single use plastic items, such as cutlery, plates and food and drink containers, by 2021,” the document reads. “We are aiming to meet or exceed the standards set out in the European Union’s Single-use Plastic Directive.”

England is now consulting on similar bans and the writing is very much on the wall for a number of single-use plastic items. Whether this IMA rigmarole has to be repeated every time is unclear. It certainly paves the way for diverging standards and regulations, which isn’t ideal for businesses (look at the mess created by DRS, the deposit return scheme running at difference paces across the UK). 

Green regulations could get terribly political, as Scotland and Wales align with the EU and England does everything in its power to do things differently. Equally Scotland, Wales and England could push one another to all have higher standards and protections. Would the FPA push back if that happened too?

Comments are closed.