As I See It

Final straw looming for plastic waste

Terry smiling headThe launch of the Turner exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery was an opportunity to view some of its most precious paintings, though it was something rather more mundane that caught my attention: the cutlery in the gallery cafe.

I’d not noticed before, but the cafe uses wooden knives and forks rather than those once-used-and-thrown-away plastic ones. As a pedantic recycler this struck me as a plus point and a good enough reason to pay a return visit.

Later, at the opening of Chris Thewlis’s new social enterprise bar, Harry’s Southside, a straw was popped into my glass of cola. I’ve never worked out why soft drinks require a straw, and I routinely refuse one, or else leave it on the bar.

Last night, however, the bar tender was quick off the mark to point out that the discarded straw was in fact a Vegware product. It is biodegradable. Not only did that make it acceptable, I felt his intervention obliged me to use it.

Chris (who, by the way, is looking to open a Harry’s in Perth), pointed out that the business is not a “sponsor me to do a good deed” sort of project, it’s a living thing that operates on a continual sustainability model. The cola, for instance, was Karma Cola whose revenue goes back into supporting farming communities in Sierra Leone.

There’s been a renewed interest in recent days on our over-use of plastics, generated in large part by the naturalist Sir David Attenborough through his Blue Planet television series showing sea animals tangled in plastic or getting it caught in their digestive system.

It’s good to see that some businesses are taking the message seriously, though more clearly needs to be done. We can start by banning plastic straws. Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Kate Forbes is calling on festive partygoers to do their bit by foregoing plastic straws in their drinks.

I recently gave Ms Forbes a hard time over her campaign to stop RBS closing branches, not because I don’t support keeping them open, but because I don’t believe it’s the business of government to be forcing decisions on a single company that would make it uncompetitive.


Sugar taxes, for instance, are industry-wide. Environmental taxes and regulations are industry-wide, and so on. On the plastics issue Ms Forbes gets my full support. On the issue of straws, most definitely. This is a global issue and it needs united global action.

Now that may sound a bit ambitious, but we have to start somewhere. The Highland MSP, who sits on Holyrood’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, is highlighting the damage caused by single-use disposable plastic items to both the onshore and marine environment in Scotland. 

Most straws are made from plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene, which unless recycled take hundreds of years to decompose. It means small plastic items like straws, coffee cup lids and plastic bottle tops are strewn in the ocean and on landfill sites – even though they may only have been used for the time it takes to finish a drink.

It is estimated that around eight million tonnes of plastic reaches the sea every year and Ms Forbes states that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish, with potentially devastating consequences for marine life. 

An average of 138 pieces of waste related to food and drink, including plastic straws, were found on every 100 metres of UK beaches during this year’s Great British Clean, organised by the Marine Conservation Society.

Ms Forbes is now calling on bars and cafes to stop issuing straws, unless they are specifically requested. Let’s face it, we don’t need a straw to drink a coke or a gin and tonic. It’s issued like the cherry or slice of lemon, as decoration.

Of course, there are those who argue that straws have a health benefit. Dentists say sipping through a straw prevents teeth stains and erosion from fizzy drinks. Even Prosecco aficionados are advised to use a straw to protect their teeth from its high acid and sugar content.

Even so, the straw ban is gathering pace. Among its supporters is the designer Vivienne Westwood who has joined an online campaign which began in the US for people to refuse straws and start drinking from the glass.

Pub chain JD Wetherspoon, which hands out 70 million straws every year, has called time on bar staff automatically putting straws in drinks, saying eco-friendly paper straws will be offered in its 900 outlets. All Bar One, which gets through 4.7 million straws a year. has vowed to reduce its straw usage by one-third.

All the food and drinks businesses in  Ullapool have now converted to drinking straws made from non-plastic materials or have stopped offering them altogether following a campaign by pupils from the local primary school.

The UK Government is now edging towards action on plastics of all kinds,  and this has implications for manufacturers and retailers.

An Environmental Audit Committee report published today calls for the introduction of a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, a policy also being considered by the Scottish Government.

The committee wants to re-introduce free public drinking water fountains and says firms using plastic packaging should pay more for the waste they create.

The government says it is consulting with industry on a deposit scheme, and charges for single-use plastics.

Retailers are none too happy with the prospect of deposit return scheme. The Association of Convenience Stores has highlighted problems such as the space and cost and the health and safety implications of a manual return process in stores.

The ACS says a survey of 2,000 consumers across the UK found that 70% preferred to use kerbside household recycling facilities over a deposit return system for bottles and cans.

Campaigners argue on the contrary that the added cost of implementing a scheme that cuts plastic waste is one that consumers would be prepared to bear or share.  There has been a huge reduction in carrier bag usage after the 5p charge was introduced and they say a similar campaign could help cut other plastic packaging and containers.

Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe said measures such as plastic-free aisles in stores were just tokenism and that a holistic solution is required.

Indeed. Sainsbury’s may have cut its use of plastics by 30% in the past decade, but that still leaves a lot being used in other ways, such as wrapping cucumbers, another irritation to the anti-plastic campaign.

The argument is that it extends their shelf life, but corner shops never do this and don’t seem to have a problem.

Another argument offered is that it makes them shiny and therefore more appealing to customers. This helps the supermarkets to sell more cucumbers and, of course, make more money.

And until we break that cycle of putting profit first then I fear we’re going to be fighting this issue for a long time.

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