Report highlights Scotland’s “hidden cost of single-use packaging”

New report by Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) reveals how Scots are “unknowingly” spending hundreds of millions of pounds on single-use packaging, “making the climate emergency situation significantly worse”, ZWS says.

Consumers in Scotland are being urged to “be aware” of what ZWS is calling the “hidden financial cost and harm to the environment” of the single-use packaging being purchased in everyday products.

Research by ZWS found that Scottish consumers are collectively buying more than 300,000 tonnes of single-use packaging for their groceries every year.

The estimated total annual cost to households of all this packaging is £600 million, which is “hidden” within the overall price of their groceries, ZWS says.

Scottish consumers also pay around £40 million a year to cover the costs for local authorities to collect and manage all that single-use packaging once it is disposed of, it says.

Packaging is not free. Add it all up, and the average consumer spends a lot on single-use packaging.

Producing these quantities of single-use packaging generates 650,000 tonnes of carbon emissions annually, equivalent to emissions from around four million car journeys from Aberdeen to London, ZWS says.

The organisation is highlighting the what it’s calling the “potential benefits of alternative ‘packaging free’ stores” – where customers can bring their own containers to fill with items from pasta and rice to cleaning products.

Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland chief executive, said: “Packaging is often seen as essential to protect products and, like other techniques from pasteurising to freezing, it can also prolong the shelf-life of food.

“However, too many products come in packaging which is unnecessary and single-use, generating significant emissions and waste. We advocate avoiding any packaging which is not needed.

“Where it is needed, we must look to more circular solutions. Emerging plastic packaging-free aisles in supermarkets show how key players are changing their operations to meet public demand and changing environmental policies.”

“Packaging is not free”

Michael Lenaghan is Zero Waste Scotland’s environmental policy advisor who crunched the numbers on the financial and environmental costs of grocery packaging.

He said: “It’s easy to think of packaging as part of the product we want, rather than a product in its own right. In truth, when we buy 500ml of shampoo, we’re also buying a 500ml shampoo bottle, but the cost of that bottle is not evident.

“Packaging is not free. Add it all up, and the average consumer spends a lot on single-use packaging. And all this single-use packaging doesn’t just come with a cost for consumers, it also brings a significant cost to the environment.

“To be clear, the point of this is not to say that packaging is inherently bad, but that it is inherently a product, and like any other product, consumers can make more informed decisions about whether the service provided is worth the cost, if that cost is made clear upfront.”

Referring to the success of Scotland’s carrier bag charge in persuading the public to choose more sustainable alternatives, he added: “If consumers knew what they paid for packaging, research suggests they would be more inclined to seek unpackaged products, and reusable packaging options, irrespective of their sustainability concerns.

“This in turn could encourage product manufacturers and retailers to find ways of reducing and eliminating single-use packaging, resulting in cost savings for the consumer, and environmental benefits for the planet.”

Packaging free shops, such as Locavore in Glasgow and Sea No Waste in Arbroath, aim to eliminate single-use products and support sustainable projects.

For the full report, click here.

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