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Waste Not
England’s Partial Single-Use Plastic Ban Greeted with Lukewarm Response

Starting in October, the country will phase out a variety of single-use plastic products; but most think it does not go far enough to tackle pollution and waste.

As England gets set to implement a partial single-use plastic ban later this year, it aims to continue momentum spurred by prior bans on plastic microbeads in 2018; and restrictions on single-use straws and stirrers, and a tax on certain kinds of imported plastic packaging introduced in 2020.

This newest ban — to take effect in October 2023 — will include "single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers," according to the announcement.

While at first glance this may seem like prudent progress, Britta Baechler — the Ocean Conservancy’s associate director of ocean plastics science and research — notes that Scotland, Wales and the European Union have already implemented similar bans, framing the English government as laggards in this particular area.

“We’re excited (about the ban),” she told Sustainable Brands®, “but we can’t rely solely on them. These types of bans are creating momentum and help shift the way we think about plastic — banning these items has the immediate effect of reducing plastic production and cleaning up recycling systems — but it’s just one tool in the toolkit.”

“To be honest, the latest ban announcement came a bit out of nowhere,” Sara Tomkins, marketing & CSR director at Co-op Live — set to be the UK’s largest music-only event venue — told SB. “It was talked about some time back but then went quiet; so, it was a welcome surprise announcement in January.”

While single-use plastics are already banned at the arena, Tompkins says she’s excited for the potential of England’s new laws in changing what suppliers provide in the live entertainment space.

Falling short of other regional bans

In mid-2022, both Wales and Scotland instituted their own single-use plastic bans. A key difference with both of these bans is that they include certain kinds of common foam carry-out containers, with the Welsh ban including thin plastic bags.

As it stands, England’s new ban does not include single-use plastics in pre-packaged goods, as those items are being considered under another government policy. Most notably, the ban also doesn’t cover several of the largest contributors to pollution: single-use plastic water bottles (though the government says it will implement a Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers to recycle billions more plastic bottles and stop them being landfilled, incinerated, or littered — via a small deposit on drinks products to incentivize people to recycle them), plastic bags and the control of plastic waste incineration, according to The Verge.

The EU instituted a ban in 2021 covering 10 common single-use items — which will theoretically have a much broader impact, as all member nations plus Norway are part of the pledge. This ban is thought to have sped up plans for the EU to introduce a more sweeping plastic waste and packaging ban in an effort to tackle the continent’s mountainous waste issue. While nothing formal has been set in Wales or Scotland, the momentum from these bans often leads to faster adoption of more stringent regulation to address plastic waste across industries and applications.

Although England has made some head-scratching decisions recently — including approving a controversial new coal plant in the northern part of the country — the collective force of more significant bans in the EU, and eventually Scotland and Wales, will hopefully force the Brits to follow suit to stay competitive in business and trade; and give it any hope of achieving its climate-action goals.

Pursuing more aggressive action

In the meantime, the broad consensus is that this new ban doesn’t go far enough.

For example, Baechler says biodegradable plastics should be included in the ban: “Biodegradable materials now have many of the same ills as plastic — they can’t be recycled, end up clogging waste streams; and many aren’t even really ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ as labeled.”

Single-use plastics are just one part of the global plastic pollution issue; and while England’s forthcoming ban will create momentum, it’s only a step on the long road ahead.