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Loophole uncovered in Scotland’s single use plastics ban

Craig Nicholson, general manager of catering and hygeine at Highland Industrial Supplies is unimpressed with the handling of the single use plastics ban.
No level playing field: Craig Nicholson, general manager of the hygiene and catering division at Highland Industrial Supplies.

Scotland’s single use plastics ban was introduced on June 1 but a loophole means the rule is not as effective as first thought as businesses can continue to use the “banned” items.

This loophole is the UK Internal Market Act which allows businesses from all parts of the UK to trade unhindered with each other.

The Scottish Government’s new single use plastics ban can only cover products made and sold in Scotland, but thanks to the Internal Market Act buyers can still purchase the now-banned plastics – as long as they are bought and made in England.

Businesses in Scotland say what they were left in the dark about was the small print, and they are now bracing themselves for losses worth tens of thousands of pounds as buyers can take their money to England instead.

How did it come to this?

For months, major catering supplier Highland Industrial Supplies was winding down its stock of plastic cutlery, polystyrene boxes and other single use plastics which were banned on June 1.

Instead, the independent firm – the biggest of its kind in Scotland – began supplying its customers with wooden forks and biodegradable cartons, as suggested by the Scottish Government.

Craig Nicholson. general manager of Highland Industrial Supplies' hygiene and catering division
Craig Nicholson at the depot in Inverness.

Craig Nicholson, general manager of the hygiene and catering division, who oversees buying for the firm’s seven nationwide depots, said he is pleased to be doing what is best for the environment but feels disappointed that customers can still buy the now- banned plastic and polystyrene products.

“We have switched many of our suppliers on to the environmentally-friendly solutions but it feels like we have been a wee bit hard done by and are now going to be losing sales for doing the right thing,” he said.

‘Undercut but doing the right thing’

Highland Industrial Supplies attached all of their new environmentally-friendly plastics on the wall for customers to  chose from the spread.

He says Highland Industrial Supplies now faces being undercut by rival firms who have not stopped selling the banned plastic items.

“The old plastic stuff is much cheaper than the environmentally-friendly options and  because we no longer stock the cheaper stuff we feel we will end up losing sales because of it and it could run into tens of thousands of pounds,” Craig said.

He added: “We could still order the old plastics from our usual suppliers as they were based in England and could still sell it legally in Scotland but we have taken the moral decision not to.”

Why are businesses still allowed to buy the banned items from elsewhere in the UK?

It all comes down to the UK Internal Market Act which was set up in the wake of Brexit to ensure that goods which have been produced or imported into one part of the UK, can be sold in any other part of the UK, free from restrictions.

But it means that a plastics ban like the one brought in by the Scottish Government on June 1 cannot be fully enforced until it is formally excluded from the act.

plastic straws are banned in scotland from june 1
Plastic straws are now banned along with plastic cutlery, plastic plates, stirrers, balloon sticks, and containers made of expanded polystyrene. Photo Shutterstock.

Scottish Ministers fought long and hard to secure this exclusion for their plastics ban, and it was eventually granted by the UK Government.

But ministers have been left “frustrated” that it has not yet come into force.

A Scottish Government spokesman said it will be a number of weeks until this exclusion is in place, but they are encouraging businesses to “take action now, regardless”.

The spokesman said: “Delays on implementation on the UK Government side mean that businesses can still get banned plastic items from the rest of the UK.

“This is set to end in the coming weeks when we expect an exclusion to the UK Internal Market Act to come into effect when the UK parliamentary process is complete.

“Once the exclusion is in force, the prohibition of the supply of the listed single use plastic products will apply to all products, regardless of where they originate from and whether they can be supplied in another part of the UK.

“Local authorities will be policing the ban and could fine businesses up to £5,000 for non-compliance.”

What do businesses do now?

Businesses across the country are confused and say the matter is too serious for  “smoke and mirrors messaging” from the Scottish government.

Polystyrene boxes are now banned in Scotland
Polystyrene boxes stacked up at a takeaway in Inverness last week.

Alison Buchan, buyer at MacGregor Industrial Supplies in Inverness, said: “We’re all as confused as each other.

“We have all got the old stock of plastics in our warehouses and we are not really sure whether to sell it or put it in the bin, polluting the planet anyway.”

Alison claimed businesses had not been properly informed by the government, and it was “an absolute disgrace”.

Similarly, central-belt catering supplier Ian Queen of Marshall Wilson, said he does not object to the ban, but he feels that it has been badly-handled.

“I’ve got no objection to any of this stuff being banned, but my objection is to the smoke and mirrors messaging coming out of the Scottish government which is leading the public to believe that these plastics have all been banned.

“It’s like people are being bullied into changing products that are not even illegal yet and I want people to know the facts because it is causing quite a bit of concern for everyone still using this stuff.

“I’m getting phone call after phone call from customers who are really concerned about this.”

Loophole must be closed

MSP Rhoda Grant says a level playing field is needed.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “It seems a bit unfair to leave a loophole because the moment we have a loophole people use it.

“The Scottish Government should have hung fire until the loophole was closed so that everyone was going into a level playing field.”

Read more on the single use plastics ban: