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Producers need to accept some responsibility for our litter emergency

A blog post by Catherine Gee

As we publish our latest report - Tackling the litter emergency: Making the case for packaging EPR to include ground and binned litter - our Former Deputy Chief Executive Catherine Gee reflects on our journey and her hopes for the future.

Our report combines data and evidence from public polling, technical ground litter surveys and citizen science data to call for Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging (pEPR regulations) to deliver bold reform to support Scotland to tackle its litter emergency

We keep reiterating this statistic from our recent public polling - 90% of people believe that litter is a problem across Scotland.  This is the highest number since we started asking three years ago, and it is significant.   Which is why this statistic underpins much of the communications we are doing on the issue.

Surely if 90% of people think that litter is a problem, we need to do more to address it.

We know that much of the litter we record, that volunteers tell us about and people across Scotland notice is generated by our consumption habits – our desire to eat and drink on the go and the ease in which we can do this.  The litter we find people notice most is from single-use food and drink packaging.

Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging (pEPR) is currently being worked on by the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments.  pEPR is about making sure packaging producers take some responsibility for the environmental impact of their products – encouraging them to make products less harmful to the environmental and to use less packaging.  If they don’t, they will have to pay for dealing with the packaging that they place on the market and the waste created.

In Scotland, and Wales, these proposals include packaging that is littered on the ground or placed in bins.

We asked people across Scotland what they thought about this.  And 71% agreed with the principle that producers should bear the financial responsibility for managing packaging waste and litter.   With almost 70% agreeing that producers should be responsible for meeting the specific costs of managing and cleaning up the waste caused by the packaging they produce, and meeting the specific costs of activities aimed at changing behaviours and preventing litter caused by the packaging they produce.

This is important because it shows people feel that packaging producers must step up to help tackle the litter emergency we face in Scotland.  It is important because we also know that the items commonly seen as litter by people correlate with those in scope to be addressed – food containers, wrappers and packaging (69%), plastic drinks bottles (66%) and drinks cans (65%).  And, our technical data shows that at least one item of food and drink on-the-go packaging in scope for EPR regulations is found on 42.7% of sites surveyed nationally – rising significantly in deprived communities to 65% of sites.  Additionally, the data volunteers have submitted to us over the past year shows that in non-street settings, regionally and nationally, confectionary litter, plastic bottles and drinks cans are again amongst the most prevalent in our litter stream.

We have been working with key stakeholders, partners, communities and schools to turn the tide on litter for decades.  We are limited by resources, by time and by the significant increase in prevalence of single us packaging. 

But, we have data that shows a desperate need for action.   We firmly believe that pEPR regulations provide a real opportunity for producers to switch to more financially and environmentally sustainable models of doing business.  Continuing to use finite resources, that can damage the environment when raw materials are extracted and then through the supply chain to become packaging, is not sustainable for anyone.

It makes business sense for packaging producers to invest in innovative reusable or closed loop recyclable alternatives or to design the packaging out entirely.  Through pEPR producers will be incentivised to do so or will need to pay to deal with the waste and change behaviours.

We have a lot of hoped pinned on the proposed pEPR regulations.  And while we are realistic and know that changes in business models will take time to work through, we also know that the data can’t be ignored. Neither can the litter emergency – which will continue to get worse without the much-needed policy and regulations we have championed, including EPR and a Deposit Return System for Scotland and the UK.

We’ve consistently said that dealing with litter is a shared responsibility.  One that we as consumers need to confront, one that local authorities and duty bodies must grapple with as they try to clean up and prevent, and now, most certainly, one that the UK and Scottish Governments must step up to address to bring producers in to contribute as well.

Finance for infrastructure, enforcement, cleansing and campaigning is needed to tackle the litter emergency.  We believe that through pEPR regulations significant monetary contributions from producers could be collected to help clearing up the single-use packaging that is littered and support behaviour change and education.

Our recent report [link to title] calls for the UK Government to stay on track and progress pEPR regulations, extending the scope to cover ground litter packaging and to ensure litter payments form a key component, that the Scottish Government maintains its commitment and support and that single-use packaging producers design out where possible the most problematic items – in particular snack packs and confectionary.

As I move on from Keep Scotland Beautiful, I plea - let’s not delay any further and work together to tackle the litter emergency.  After all DRS and EPR schemes work successfully in other countries, with producers accepting to bear some of the responsibility and a share of the costs, so why should the UK be any different for them?

We support the