Saying it wanted to tackle plastic pollution “head on”, the government announced last week it will ban certain single use plastics in England from this October. These include takeaway plates and cutlery and some types of polystyrene containers. They will join plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, banned in 2020.
In announcing this move the government has repeated the claim that it is taking “major steps” to address plastic pollution, adding that the bans will have “a huge impact”.
But do these efforts really add up to meaningful action? We don’t think so. Here are five reasons the strategy falls short.
1. Action is far too slow
Defra’s announcement came more than a year after its consultation. Reasons for the delay aren’t clear, as the bans are overwhelmingly supported, with 95 per cent of those who responded to the consultation in favour. Meanwhile, the devolved administrations are ahead, with similar measures passed in Wales last year and in Scotland in 2021, where bans have already taken effect.
It also comes a year and a half after EU countries stopped selling these items. The EU’s 2019 Single Use Plastics Directive was issued during the Brexit transition period, so the UK was not obliged to transpose it and didn’t, allowing the unnecessary use of these items to continue unchecked for a couple extra years in parts of the UK. The EU has also gone further than the UK in banning outright damaging oxo-degradable plastics.
2. It isn’t dealing with the main plastic problems
The government’s press notice around its recent announcement cited evidence from Keep Britain Tidy ranking plastic cutlery as one of the top 15 items littered. While this is true – it squeaks in at 15th on the list – the government failed to mention that plastic cutlery accounts for only 0.4 per cent of all items littered, and it’s even less by volume (0.1 per cent).
Most litter by item count comes from plastic-containing cigarette stubs (66 per cent). Keep Britain Tidy found 50,088 cigarette stubs and only 300 pieces of cutlery. The government is doing nothing about these, beyond indicating that research into an extended producer responsibility scheme for tobacco filters will be published “in due course”.
By volume, the biggest offender by far is plastic bottles. Small plastic bottles for non-alcoholic beverages account for almost a quarter of litter, while large bottles are another 4.4 per cent. The most effective way of preventing them is a deposit return scheme (DRS). Countries with successful DRSs regularly approach the 100 per cent recycling mark. The last Conservative manifesto committed to a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, and nearly two years ago, the government ran a second consultation into introducing a DRS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its response is expected any day now, but a DRS is now unlikely to be delivered in this parliament, if at all.
3. Claims are overblown
The claim that the UK has one of the “world’s toughest bans” on plastic microbeads is embarrassing. Although the government deserves credit for moving early on this front, the 2018 ban now needs urgent revision. It only includes plastic microbeads found in rinse-off cosmetics, not even those in sunscreen and make up, which are also washed off. And it excludes all the microplastics used in agriculture, paints and detergents. It’s estimated that microbeads covered by the UK ban make up less than ten per cent of the intentionally added microplastics that end up in the environment. An EU ban, under its world leading REACH chemicals regime, meanwhile, is expected to tackle more than 90 per cent of the pollution from these microplastics.
And the government’s claim that its carrier bag charge “has successfully cut sales by over 97 per cent in the main supermarkets” fails to give a true picture of what this limited policy measure has done. Reducing single use carrier bags has led to a massive rise in so called ‘bags for life’, with the average household buying 57 a year, over twice the rate predicted by government. As these are heavier than single use bags, it’s likely the policy has actually increased plastic use by a lot; the Co-op suggests by as much as 440 per cent. More effort to encourage the proper reuse of reusable bags at the start, for example by pricing them at a level to discourage disposal, could have easily avoided this problem.
4. Politicians are turning a blind eye to big issues
Such slow progress means emerging threats are escalating unchecked. This is undoubtedly true of disposable vapes, which have exploded in popularity over the past two years, so that at least two a second – that’s 1.3 million a week – are being thrown away. Litter picking groups now find them routinely. They are, in most cases, an unnecessary single use of plastics. Meanwhile, the market for reuseable vapes, more suited to helping people quit smoking, is losing out to these throwaway alternatives. And there are other significant issues with these devices. Their batteries are a fire risk and nicotine is toxic in the environment. And what are we doing allowing lithium to be thrown away so indiscriminately? This vital resource is needed to power electric vehicles, meaning we should use it much more carefully.
Environmental problems come on top of serious concerns around vape use by children and the avoidable health problems they could lead to. That’s why we recently joined other leading environmental groups and health charities to ask the government to see off this threat before it gets any worse. Defra and the Department of Health responded, recognising the harms vapes cause, but promising no meaningful action. In particular, Defra suggested a solution should be producers and importers financing the collection and treatment of disposable vapes. It has also, laughably, urged people to take them to household waste recycling centres. The UK has the lowest density of recycling centres in Europe, many inaccessible without a car. Busy people (many of them teenagers) will not be taking these tiny gadgets to their local recycling centre when they’ve finished with them. And, if they did, the centres would struggle to recycle them, given the lack of facilities available.
5. Plastic-only policy doesn’t tackle the root causes
Fundamentally, banning individual plastic items will never address the root causes of our throwaway society. As our work for the Circular Economy Task Force has shown, the deeper problem is single use culture. Plastic pollution should be a priority for the government but, of course, it shouldn’t deal with it by creating other environmental problems. The extraction, processing and use of all materials can have significant environmental and human consequences, so the solution has to be holistic, reducing their use, valuing them properly and keeping those we do use in the economy as long as possible.
The government’s narrow approach will ultimately fail. The impact assessment for the ban on plastic plates and cutlery assumes they will be replaced like for like with paper and wood alternatives. These are just as unnecessary and could cause other problems, not least putting pressure on sustainable forestry. As WWF and Eunomia note, although paper for the UK market is typically sourced from well managed European forests, unnecessarily substituting it for plastic will mean more is sourced from other places, like South America, where forests are not as well managed with serious impacts on nature.
If the UK really wants to have a “huge impact” it should start by preventing the use of unnecessary single use plates and cutlery altogether, as in France which has banned them outright. The government has acknowledged the need to move away from throwaway living altogether in its amendment of the Environment Act, with new provisions to charge for single use items made from any material, not just plastic.
The power to do it is there. It’s time to use it.