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Opinion piece from our CEO Derek Robertson

Our Chief Executive outlines the environmental opportunities and challenges of a deposit return scheme for Scotland.

The recent beautiful spring weather, combined with the changing of our clocks, reminds us all that the arrival of the new season is well and truly under way. With the prospect of long summer evenings now hopefully just around the corner, we look forward to the time of year when we will welcome visitors from all over the world to our shores.  It is a good time to take a closer look and reflect upon the state of our nation’s environment.

As an environmental charity with a fifty-year track record of campaigning against litter in Scotland, Keep Scotland Beautiful is constantly encouraging everyone to look around them, see the real and tangible impact of litter, and take the action necessary to tackle it. Because, if we are truly honest, the state of our country is just not good enough. All too often the cleanliness of our communities shames us all - shames those who are irresponsible enough to drop litter carelessly, with no regard to the consequences of doing so, and shames the rest of us for not doing enough to tackle the problem and make it better.

We have significant evidence that the problem is bad, and getting worse. Our national surveys have shown a substantial and troubling deterioration in the cleanliness of the environment - one that we should all find appalling. The pressure on local authority cleansing budgets has played a significant part. However, we need to acknowledge that the problem stems from our collective failure to tackle the problem at source. Whilst 88% of us, according to my charity’s research, accept that litter levels give a negative impression of our country to visitors, cleanliness levels are still in decline.

With growing political support for the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for Scotland, the momentum is building behind a move that will make a positive difference to tackle the proliferation of bottles and cans littering our country. The Daily Mail campaign to “banish the bottles” has helped raise the profile of the issue too.  But, if we are to edge towards the introduction of a DRS for certain drinks containers I feel it is important to highlight the impact that such a scheme could make, and to outline the considerations that still need to be addressed.

Our annual survey of Scotland’s streets makes very clear the scale of the difference a scheme could make to litter levels. Drinks containers make up a highly visible part of the overall litter stream, particularly on roadsides, and tackling it could make a real impact, depending on the scheme we choose to implement.

Evidence suggests that if we are to have a DRS it will lead to a welcome increase in recycling rates and importantly reduce the volume of aluminium and plastic in the litter stream. But, let’s be honest, it is only likely to address one part of the litter stream and will do little to tackle other regularly littered items such as food on the go packaging, cigarettes, paper cups, chewing gum and confectionery wrappers.

The scheme is likely to work by attaching a monetary value to each bottle or can sold in Scotland that can be reclaimed by taking the container for recycling to a designated return point. That financial encouragement will inevitably reduce levels of littered cans and bottles and could reduce them massively if the scheme we chose to implement is designed in collaboration with all stakeholders and is easy to use.   We know that a successful scheme will need to work for small and large businesses and producers.  It will need to be cost effective and to sit alongside local authority collection schemes.  It will need to have the correct infrastructure to support it – all designed with a low carbon footprint in mind.  We want to be involved to help get it right, but a DRS will need to be championed by us all.

The scale of the impact on litter, and how sustainable the outcome of the scheme is, will depend hugely on getting the details right.  It will need everyone from the Scottish Parliament, to industry, local authorities, charities and the people of Scotland to take collective action and support it.

Scotland is not alone in facing the significant challenge of litter.  As President of the pan-european Clean Europe Network, I have brought a Scottish voice to the heart of the international debate on the future treatment of waste packaging and have provided support, advice and evidence to help shape future policy and legislation.

The wider moves towards what is called “extended producer responsibility”, mean manufacturers and distributors of food products can no longer ignore the consequences of the waste that packaging creates. Some producers of waste are recognising this new landscape and are taking the steps they need to take to get ready for this new reality, and in that context it was fascinating to see Coca Cola moving to consider a DRS in Scotland. The tide is turning and producer responsibility for waste levels will be a healthy, long-term development as we move towards a more circular economy.

But let’s not hide from the uncomfortable truth. Each piece of litter on our streets and in our countryside, has been dropped not by the manufacturer, distributor or retailer of the product, but by the consumer of it. Littering behaviour is an individual manifestation of the disregard of those who just don’t care about our environment. Almost 70% of us have seen someone dropping litter, whether it be a cigarette butt, a crisp bag, or a plastic drinks bottle, and we need to do more, much more, as a country to demand a change in behaviour from those who are so irresponsible.

Taking action to change individual behaviour will be difficult, but is vital in addressing our litter problem. Tackling it was a key component of the Scottish Government’s National Litter Strategy launched in 2014. Despite all the good work being done by the thousands of individuals who we support to voluntarily clean up Scotland and the innovative campaigns pulling together public bodies, charities and industry to target litter on our roadsides and to address specific litter items such as cups and cigarettes, it makes me angry that litter levels continue to rise. I know that anger is shared in communities up and down the country, but there is work to do to see that transformed into a sense of national political priority in Holyrood.

That’s why the debate on a deposit return scheme is so important.  It is, beyond doubt, a step forward. However, a deposit return scheme it is not the silver bullet.  We cannot allow it to be a distraction, or a get out clause, from the sustained, co-ordinated and collaborative approach needed to address litter and littering behaviour in Scotland.

It’s time to act. We will look forward to engaging further with industry, campaigners and politicians to make sure that the step forward that a DRS could be, becomes a leap towards a cleaner Scottish environment that we can all be proud of.  Ultimately this is about individual behaviours; it is up to the people of Scotland to determine what kind of country we all live in.

Derek Robertson, Chief Executive

28 March 2017

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