Deposit return system? We need a global plastic waste treaty

It’s hard to believe we’re still waiting. The plastic bottle, especially the water bottle, has long been the symbol of the oversized throwaway of our times – and yet, more than 10 years after a deposit system was mooted, nearly two decades after the ‘Germany introduced their version, we’re still not quite on that, it’s rolling out to Scotland. Not only that, but on the heels of the program being announced to be postponed until August 2023, we are learning that it does not include a digital system that could allow bottles to be returned to door-to-door collections.

When it finally arrives, I wish I could celebrate the SNP-Green set return system, but I imagine my feeling will be more relieved. It’s not because of the recent delays announced by Circular Economy Minister Lorna Slater. This is because of the larger context of plastic pollution; because the deposit reminds me of the myriad ways we are not addressing the enormity of this waste.

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While I applaud many individual measures taken against plastic, for example Scotland’s upcoming ban on the manufacture and supply of single-use plastic cutlery, plates and mixers and polystyrene food containers which is due to be introduced in June – especially since, so far, the UK Government has no date for a similar ban – to me these are just reminders of the need for a bolder approach .

Solving this problem cannot consist of banning bags one by one, then straws, then cotton swabs, then plastic food wraps on vegetables. We need a faster way with more urgency. We need, as a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency recently stated, a “UN plastics treaty” with binding targets, as we have now with climate.

Because, despite the David Attenborough effect around the plastic waste of the oceans, we have the impression of just tinkering. If this was a dam we were trying to plug, we would only put our fingers in a few holes while the rest kept gushing out. Plastic, in its macro, micro and nano forms, continues to flood the environment on a regular basis. A 2017 report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum predicted that, by 2050, plastic in the oceans will overtake fish.

In the meantime, we in Scotland should remember that while we are ahead of the UK in terms of plastics legislation, trumpeting our next circular economy bill, there are others to which we should turn for a more ambitious example. Canada, for example, which has declared plastic “toxic”; or France, where plastic packaging has been banned for many types of fruit and vegetables; India, which introduced a broad ban on single-use plastic this summer.

Scotland’s powers to transform our relationship with plastic may be limited by being part of the UK – and we can see this in how the UK’s Internal Market Act threatens the effectiveness of upcoming plastic bans in single use in Scotland – but we should always be pushing harder.

Indeed, we must be part of a world that pushes harder against this most tolerated pollutant.

At least with greenhouse gases, the fight has started well and the renewable energy revolution is well underway. Meanwhile, while the pandemic may have helped us fight climate change by putting a momentary pause on some travel-related shows, it has only made the plastic problem worse.

As the Environmental Investigation Agency points out, what we need is a UN agreement on plastics, similar to the global accords on climate and biodiversity.

Its report observes that “although dedicated multilateral agreements to address biodiversity loss and climate change have been in place for nearly 30 years, no such tools currently exist to address plastic pollution, although ‘it is one of the most widespread and destructive pollutants in existence’.

In this context, the return of deposits seems like a small triumph. The sad truth is that even if we stop this flow of bottles, we are flooding our world with other, harder-to-recover plastics.

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Data collected during Ocean Race Europe showed that 86% of microplastics in its seawater samples were microfibers. Studies already suggest it could be a toxic ticking time bomb, not just for marine life, but for ourselves. A recent report, published in the Journal Of Hazardous Materials, showed that microplastics cause human cell death, an immune response and damage to cell membranes.

So yes please let’s recycle and reuse our plastic bottles, but we’re going to have to think bigger. “The plastic emergency” should be the phrase on all our lips; and a UN plastics deal should be a key global goal.

Bryce K. Locke