Ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds confirmed for England

Plastic straws, drinks stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds will be banned in England next year, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has announced.

A consultation on the proposal closed on 3 December 2018 and received 1,602 responses, the vast majority of which (1,213) were from individual members of the public, evidence of the scale of interest around the issue of plastic waste and pollution. 88 responses were submitted by public bodies, 90 by non-governmental organisations and 94 from the retail and manufacturing industries.

Image of cotton buds, which will be banned in England in 2020
Plastic-stemmed cotton buds come under the new ban
Research carried out on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates that  4.7 billion straws are used in England alone every year, along with 316 million stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds – figures that are especially shocking when you consider that all of these items end up in landfill, incineration or as litter.

Responding to the consultation, more than 80 per cent of participants were in support of a ban on the distribution and sale of plastic straws. 90 per cent backed a ban on drinks stirrers and 89 per cent were in favour of banning cotton buds.

Yesterday (22 May), the government published its response to the consultation and confirmed that a ban on plastic drinks straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and single-use plastic stirrers will come into force in England in April 2020 (with some exemptions for medical and other uses). While a number of businesses have already taken steps to remove plastic straws from their counters – including Starbucks and JD Wetherspoon – this move will turn voluntary action into legislative requirement.

Exemptions to the law

When a ban on plastic straws was first proposed, back in February 2018, the idea was met with concern by disability rights groups, who rightly reminded the government that some people with disabilities are unable to easily drink without the aid of a straw.

The majority of those who responded to the consultation to say they did not support the ban did so because they were concerned that people who relied on straws for medical reasons would be disadvantaged by a blanket ban. Therefore, the news of an exemption designed to cater for those with accessibility needs has been met with relief. The government has confirmed that although catering establishments won’t be allowed to display plastic straws on countertops, they will be allowed to provide straws on request; moreover, plastic straws will be available for purchase from registered pharmacies.

Lauren West, Trailblazers Manager at charity Muscular Dystrophy UK, welcomed the news of an exemption, noting that “plastic straws are sometimes the only type of straw that work for disabled people due to their flexibility and ability to be used in hot and cold drinks.”

A close up of plastic straws
Plastic straws are often littered but disability groups pointed out a blanket ban would negatively affect disabled people

West continued: “While we appreciate the need to reduce the use of plastics, traditional single-use straws are essential for some disabled people. If disabled people cannot access plastic straws when out it could put their health at risk as they may not be able to drink and could become dehydrated. We’re pleased the government has recognised this in its proposals put forward today. We would encourage Defra to continue consulting disabled people and groups like Trailblazers to ensure we are not disadvantaged or targeted and stigmatised for using single-use plastics.”

There will also be an exemption to the ban on plastic-stemmed cotton buds, with the government noting that these are sometimes ‘the only practical option’ for use in medical practice, scientific research and forensic investigations.

Once the measures have been in place for a year, Defra will be carrying out a ‘stocktake’ to assess their impact. It is not yet clear how the ban will be enforced and whether businesses that break the law will face fines.

Innovation for alternatives

Independent environmental consultancy Resource Futures worked with the government to produce a preliminary assessment of the impacts of a ban. “The good news is a ban can have positive outcomes, not just on the environment but economically too,” commented Emma Burlow, Head of Circular Economy at Resource Futures. “Banning a product stimulates innovation and that leads to opportunity. A new paper straw factory was opened in Wales only last year. The UK is already ahead of the curve in implementing the EU’s timetable to tackle single-use plastic and this puts it in a strong position to lead the way.”

The Welsh paper straw factory, run by Transcend Packaging, signed a contract last summer to provide McDonald’s UK and Ireland with straws, after the fast food chain pledged to roll out paper alternatives to all its 1,361 outlets. A further paper straw facility is being developed by packaging manufacturer Huhtamaki in Antrim, Northern Ireland, creating 100 jobs.

What about the rest of the UK?

Clearly, the move away from plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds is one that is taking hold across the entire UK, with positive knock-on effects for job creation already being seen in Wales and Northern Ireland. But Defra’s ban will only take effect in England. So are the other UK nations taking legislative steps against single-use plastics?

The Scottish Government proposed back in February 2018 that a ban on plastic straws could be in place by the end of 2019. An ‘expert panel’ was set up to advise on measures to reduce single-use plastics in Scotland, but there has been little news on the progress of the plastic straw ban since then. However, the government stated in its Programme for Government 2018-19 that it was looking to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

In Wales, a possible tax on disposable plastic products was previously mooted, though progress on this seems to have stalled as the Welsh Government takes part in talks with the central UK Government about reforms to the UK’s resource and waste management system.

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