As you sip your morning cuppa while reading this, consider these facts. We are in a climate crisis. Climate emergencies are being declared around the world. And, although to many the connection has not been made, the mass consumption of single-use cups is most definitely contributing to this crisis globally. Hundreds of millions of single-use cups are bought, used and discarded in Scotland every year. These cups are becoming a symbol of the impact our unsustainable consumption is having on the environment; of the resources needed to produce them; of the financial and carbon impact of how we collect, recycle and dispose of them – all for five minutes of convenience.
Sounds depressing but read on, because there are some great things happening to address the problem in Scotland. There are things we can all do to make a difference.
The charity I represent, Keep Scotland Beautiful, works with a diverse range of stakeholders and individuals every day to help them change the way that they think about our environment and to encourage them to take action to protect it. We focus on climate change, litter prevention and behaviour change, and unsustainable levels of consumption. We have chosen to do this under the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – 17 global goals introduced to set out a positive vision for the future.
Goal 12 is about sustainable consumption and production. It challenges us to “substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and re-use”, and behaviour change is at the heart of this. There’s no better example of how we can do that than our Cup Movement in Glasgow. Launched in January, the campaign was developed in response to growing public concern about the environmental impact of single-use items. With an estimated 95 million single-use cups being used in Greater Glasgow every year, our pioneering Cup Movement tackles this issue head-on by bringing one of the first bespoke cup recycling services to Scotland with Simply Cups, while using social marketing and public engagement to promote re-use to cup users and businesses, and encourage appropriate disposal when recycling is not possible to prevent thousands being littered annually. We also aim to work with everyone who sells, buys and uses cups to trial interventions to find solutions that work and encourage everyone to make more sustainable choices.
In that context, it was a major step forward last week to see the Scottish Government’s independent expert panel on environmental issues come forward with an interesting range of measures, including promoting re-use and recycling, many of which we are addressing in Glasgow through our Cup Movement. The theme that grabbed the headlines was the suggestion that each single-use cup be subject to a levy of between 20p and 25p and combined with the other themes highlighted in the report real change could be achieved.
In Glasgow only 19 per cent of people use a re-usable cup, with only 5 per cent doing so regularly. But, if a 20p charge on every cup that is used can perhaps shift one in five people towards re-usable, that is a massive step in the right direction. And, in the short to medium term, as we encourage people to change their consumption behaviours, we need to provide them with a range of options to reduce, re-use or recycle.
Most people don’t know that single-use cups are made of paper and plastic but can be recycled. In terms of recycling, only 4 per cent of cups are recycled nationally – which means a shocking 96 per cent are not. But it is clear from our attitudinal research that there is an appetite from the public to do the right thing, with 69 per cent of people in Glasgow reporting a willingness to recycle their cups. The problem is, the system is complicated so people don’t know how to do it properly – only 12 per cent used a cup recycling bin so this means that the remaining ones went to landfill. It is likely that recycling will always play an important part in the waste hierarchy, so, as part of our Cup Movement, we are working to increase awareness that cups must be collected and recycled separately and are working with stakeholders to improve the recycling infrastructure.
I know that changing behaviour is very difficult – to do it well we need joined-up action. And, there are barriers to that action. We need to admit that, for some, single use will always be part of life. We need to improve infrastructure, to educate and support the public to understand the consequences of their actions and to eventually change their behaviours. But what we are seeing in Glasgow is a desire to try, from the public and the broad coalition of stakeholders.
Our Cup Movement in Glasgow is replicable across Scotland and soon we will be able to share our findings. Judging by the early evidence, there is no shortage of employers, retailers, shopping centres, transport hubs and others looking to join in and be part of our Cup Movement. Retailers including Pret-a-Manger and Costa, and other key organisations such as ScotRail, Glasgow City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and Buchanan Galleries are promoting re-use and testing cup collection and recycling.
For all our sakes, reducing single-use cup waste needs to work. If you are reading this while consuming your favourite morning brew in a single-use cup, take time to ponder what impact changing your choice of cup to a re-usable one would actually have on your life, and what benefit it could have on our environment
Single-use cups are indicative of our society’s unsustainable consumption – which we all need to play a part in changing if we are to meet the ambitions of the global goals in order to protect our planet for future generations.
• Derek Robertson is chief executive of Keep Scotland Beautiful