The drinks sector has been at the heart of some very understandable and commendable efforts to improve the sustainability of its packaging. Because the products involved are liquid, all need some form of container, but the widespread use of non-disposable bottles, cups, lids and straws has led to deep concerns about waste and pollution.
For that reason, many steps have been taken to improve sustainability. Paper straws are one example, while eco-friendly disposable cups are another.
However, some providers of drinks, either in a takeaway setting or in stores, have only gone so far, such as those using paper straws but having cups made from non-biodegradable materials.
That fact alone is reason enough for firms to raise their packaging game. Still, another has been provided by a setback encountered by delays to the Scottish Government’s Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). In the latest development, the start of the scheme has been delayed for a fourth time and will now not come into effect until October 2025 at the earliest.
Naturally, environmental campaigners are angry, and they are not alone. The Holyrood administration is itself livid with the UK government for delaying the DRS, which would charge an extra 20p on drink cans or bottles that can be recouped when they are returned to the shop.
The UK government has refused to grant the powers to Holyrood to run the scheme independently of the rest of the UK yet, as they want the whole of the UK to be closely co-ordinated in its recycling efforts. This also means they have insisted that glass bottles be excluded from the Scottish scheme.
Member for the circular economy at Holyrood Lorna Slater told MSPs the Westminster government is “more intent on sabotaging this parliament than protecting our environment”.
Director of Action to Protect Rural Scotland Dr Kat Jones was also unhappy. She remarked: “This is a bleak day for anyone who cares about Scotland’s litter crisis, or indeed the global climate crisis.”
However, it might be noted that there has not been unanimity in the corridors of power in Edinburgh over the issue. During the stormy SNP leadership campaign earlier this year, eventual runner-up Kate Forbes claimed the DRS would cause “economic carnage” for businesses and called for it to be delayed to give firms breathing space until the cost-of-living crisis had eased.
It may be fairly said that much of Ms Forbes’ campaign was based on dissent, of course. While eventual winner Humza Yousaf represented as the continuity candidate, Ms Forbes was the ‘change’ candidate and highly critical of existing policy in a range of areas, which may put her views on the DRS in context.
However, she was not alone in being critical of the scheme; the third candidate, Ash Regan, was also critical of it and even Mr Yousaf backed delaying its introduction. Therefore, it remains the case that question marks over the DRS in Scotland could hold it back, irrespective of dealings with Westminster.
The quest to improve the sustainability and environmental performance of the UK drinks industry requires a multi-pronged approach. Because one of these will have over two years to wait before its introduction and perhaps longer, the importance of producing more sustainable drink packaging across a range of settings can only grow in importance.