19 January 2023

England Announces Further Ban on Single-use Plastic

On Saturday, 14 January 2023, the UK government announced plans for a ban on a range of single-use plastics in England, claiming that the legislation was far-reaching and would continue "vital work to protect the environment for future generations."

The ban, coming into action in October 2023 to allow businesses time to prepare, will include single-use plastic plates, trays, cutlery, bowls, balloon sticks and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers. 

According to the government, banning these single-use plastics will "have a significant impact in reducing plastic waste and littering in England," with plastic cutlery in the country's top 15 most littered items in 2020. 

"England uses 2.7 billion items of single-use cutlery — most of which are plastic — and 721 million single-use plates per year, but only 10% are recycled". The 2.7 billion pieces of cutlery are enough to go around the world nearly nine times over when lined up.

This move is undoubtedly a step in the right direction in the ongoing battle against single-use plastics, but does it go far enough? 

Current Single-Use Plastic Bans

The issues surrounding plastics are not new, and in recent years, more has been done to combat the environmental catastrophe this cheap, durable material creates. Although it's a little later in the day for England – Wales and Scotland implemented a ban on plastic plates and cutlery last year, as did the EU – there is no doubt that the legislation will help the battle against plastic production and waste the same way previous actions have.

For example, straws, stirrers and cotton buds contributed to around 6% of marine litter. However, the Great British Beach Clean 2021 reported that cotton bud sticks have moved out of the UK's top ten most common beach litter items, showing the positive impact the ban has had on our environment. Similarly, implementing a carrier bag charge has reduced the use of single-use carrier bags in the leading supermarkets by over 95%. 

In April 2022, the government introduced the long-awaited Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT), which applies to plastic packaging produced in or imported to the UK with less than 30% recycled plastic content. It is charged at £200 per metric tonne and is payable by businesses that manufacture or import 10 tonnes of plastic packaging, or more, per year. 

However, for a policy that has been active for almost a year, there needs to be more reporting on its impact on plastic pollution. The fear amongst environmentalists is that the companies to which this is predominantly aimed are finding it simpler or cheaper to pay the tax – meaning the level of plastic used is not being reduced. With that, the latest development in reducing single-use plastic is still the tip of the iceberg for some.

More Needs to be Done

With the sheer amount of single-use plastic the UK uses, this new ban is a welcome move in the right direction and will prevent considerable plastic waste. But to some, it is too limited.

Megan Randles, a political campaigner at Greenpeace UK, tweeted:

"Whilst the removal of billions of commonly littered items is never a bad thing – this is a very long overdue move and still a drop in the ocean compared to the action that's needed to stem the plastic tide." 

The fact that the ban is overdue is quite clear. The option of degradable and more planet-friendly wood-based cutlery and paper-based plates has been available for decades. And as mentioned above, other UK and European countries have already implemented restrictions on plastic cutlery, plates and bowls.

Another concern of the new legalisation relates to where it applies. For example, the ban will not apply to plates, trays and bowls used as packaging in shelf-ready pre-packaged food items. And, according to reports, though the ruling covers plastic plates and bowls in restaurants and cafes, it doesn't extend to environments like supermarkets and shops. Likewise, takeaways and food vendors will still be able to use plastic tubs to deliver food, just as long as the consumer isn't purchasing the container.

Other focus areas

There is no denying that the government working to reduce plastic – which destroys our planet during the manufacturing process and when disposed of – is a good move. However, it can also seem like the fear of a backlash from producers and suppliers is a more significant concern than the very worrying impact plastic packaging has on our planet and our environment.

When we look at progress further afield, as well as single-use food containers, the EU proposes a ban on miniature toiletries, providing a broader scope than simply looking at the food and beverages industry. As such, the revised proposal will make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. 

In Germany, plastic manufacturers will have to begin paying towards litter collections as soon as 2025.  

These are all ideas that the UK government and DEFRA could consider whilst looking to expand the current ban to on-shelf food packaging. Likewise, investment in proper reuse and refill schemes would see the demand for plastic and the UK's plastic circular economy challenged far more substantially.