At the CAPONLITTER project’s most recent international learning event, organised by the Croatian project partner Istrian Regional Energy Agency ltd. (IRENA), stakeholders from across Europe were invited to present their work on the use of economic instruments to prevent littering and redundant waste generation. 

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) was invited to present on their work by project partner Zero Waste Europe. The Marine Conservation Society is the UK’s leading marine charity, working to ensure our seas are healthy, pollution free and protected. MCS’ work on clean seas focuses on tackling specific problems, such as reducing waste from plastic single use items and microplastics, as well as advocating for change by increasing awareness on issues such as PFAS in the ocean and highlighting UK beaches where the water quality is very poor. 

Each year, thousands of volunteers for MCS take part in the Great British Beach Clean, picking up litter from UK beaches and recording data on each item which is then used to shape MCS’ campaigning. For example, 2019 data shows that there were, on average, 558 items of litter on every 100 metres of beach that were cleaned and surveyed in the UK, with plastic and polystyrene pieces the most common litter items found, cigarette stubs following in second place and glass pieces coming in third.

Read the full report from the 2019 Great British Beach Clean here

The work of the Clean Seas programme, which Laura heads up, has led to charges for single-use bags, removal of microbeads in personal care products, changes in labelling on commonly ‘mis-flushed’ items, and a deposit return system being designed for Scotland. During her presentation at the ILE, Laura presented on the impact that two economic instruments have had on reducing waste. 

The first was the 2015 plastic bag charge, which required all large shops in the UK to charge customers an extra 5p for any single-use plastic carrier bag. In just one year after being introduced, the number of plastic bags given by the UK’s 7 largest supermarkets dropped by 83%.  

5p is a very small extra price to pay for customers, yet this small incentive encouraged a vast reduction in the consumption of these bags, subsequently preventing each item from becoming waste and polluting the environment. Since the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge, there has been a 72% decrease in the number of carrier bags found on English beaches.

During her presentation, Laura also shared the successful campaigning MCS has done in helping secure a national deposit return scheme (DRS) for Scotland. Earlier this year, the Scottish Government committed to an all-inclusive Deposit Return Scheme, with a start date of July 2022. This announcement came off the back of data from the 2019 Great British Beach Clean, which showed a worrying increase in drinks containers of all forms littering the UK’s coastline. Over the last 26 years, since the Great British Beach Clean began in 1994, data collected by MCS has shown a 32% increase in beverage containers across the UK. 

Finally, keeping with the theme of the ILE and the aim of showcasing effective economic instruments to prevent waste, the results of a field experiment to reduce coffee cup waste. The research by the Cardiff University found that the use of reusable coffee cups can be increased by (on average) 2.3 to 12.5% through clear messaging, the provision of reusable alternatives and financial incentives.  

The study suggests that a charge may be more effective than a discount. These results are in line with prospect theory, which suggests that people are more sensitive to losses than to gains when making decisions. A charge on disposable cups (a loss) is therefore more likely to produce behaviour change than a discount on a reusable cup (a gain). While the increases for the individual measures were modest, greater behaviour change was achieved when multiple measures were combined. The study suggests that in particular the provision of free reusable alternatives in combination with a financial incentive are the most effective policy instrument for decision-makers wishing to prevent waste from disposable coffee cups.