Kate Forbes has said the Scottish Government’s proposed bottle return scheme should be put on hold.
The deposit return scheme (DRS) is due to begin in August and will see shoppers pay an extra 20p when purchasing drinks in a can or bottle, with this deposit then returned to them when they bring back the empty container for recycling.
Industry figures have said the scheme could prove fatal for businesses and create a trade barrier between England and Scotland.
But environmental campaigners say it will cut carbon emissions and reduce litter.
Green minister Lorna Slater said small drinks producers may be given a one-year exemption as SNP leadership hopeful Forbes visited a brewery in Aviemore.
Forbes said the project was not ready to be rolled out in August as planned, during the visit to Loch Ness Brewery.
“Businesses like this one have weathered multiple storms and they are the ones that will deliver growth in the Scottish economy,” she said.
“So we need to give them a bit of breathing space.”
All relevant businesses need to contact the scheme’s administrators Circularity Scotland by Tuesday to register.
The Scottish Government has announced a £22m package to help small producers with the costs of the DRS.
Forbes said she fully supported the principles and aims of the DRS but that businesses were concerned that they still don’t have all the information they need about it.
“My approach is to postpone it,” she said.
“Businesses like this want to do the right thing, but at this rate, they are struggling because of the avalanche of challenges and worries that they have.”
Forbes’ rivals to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister have both proposed pausing or changing the DRS.
Humza Yousaf called for a year’s grace period for small businesses while Ash Regan said the initiative should be reworked or canned.
Industry figures have called for the DRS to be paused immediately and for the leadership candidates to order a full review into the policy.
UKHospitality Scotland executive director Leon Thompson said: “The flawed model, complexity and burdens of the scheme will put unnecessary pressure on both businesses and consumers, who are all struggling with the cost of living crisis.
“These cast-iron facts, alongside concerns around how it could impact trading with the rest of the UK, necessitate an immediate halt to the scheme’s introduction and I am calling on all leadership candidates to commit to pausing and then ordering a full review of this now discredited scheme.
The Scottish Conservatives have written to the three leadership candidates urging them to pause the scheme and carry out an independent review.
Tory MSP Maurice Golden said: “Drinks producers, wholesalers and the hospitality industry in general would have had their head in their hands listening to Lorna Slater’s shambolic and clueless interview.
“It’s mind-boggling that the minister in charge of the deposit return scheme should be telling businesses she is ‘actively considering’ a grace period for small firms, just hours before Tuesday’s deadline for them to sign up to it.”