Government publishes draft legislation on plastic straw, stirrer and cotton bud ban

The government published its draft legislation banning plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds yesterday (28 October), with the legislation due to come into force across England in April 2020.

An image of single-use plastic straws

The ban will cover single-use plastic straws, stirrers, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds, with exceptions granted for the supply of straws for use as medical devices or for medical purposes. The regulations do not apply to the sale of plastic straws at registered pharmacies, and catering establishments will be permitted to supply straws to customers who request them.

This follows a consultation which ran for seven weeks from 22 October 2018 and gathered evidence from stakeholders on whether they would support a ban, how a ban could be implemented and what the potential implications could be.

The consultation received a total of 1,602 responses, including 1,213 from members of the general public, with a vast majority of respondents expressing strong support for the banning of the single-use items.

According to the consultation report, 82 per cent of the public supported a ban on plastic drinking straws, with many citing environmental concerns such as damage to wildlife and ecosystems as their main reasons. 81 per cent of organisations also supported the ban, with the majority doing so due to environmental concerns and the availability of alternative materials.

Those who opposed the ban on plastic straws stated that straws were essential for those with physical impairments or disabilities.

With regard to plastic-stemmed cotton buds, 89 per cent of respondents were in favour of a ban, with many reporting that plastic cotton buds were one of the most common items of litter found when undertaking beach cleans.

The consultation report also outlined that 90 per cent of respondents supported the proposal to introduce a ban on the distribution and/or sale of plastic drink stirrers, with the majority pointing to the availability of alternative products such as wooden stirrers or metal spoons.

Are alternative materials any better?

56 per cent of respondents agreed that the ban should cover all compostable and biodegradable plastics. However, when asked whether they were aware of any risks or potential environmental impacts of alternative materials, there was a clear lack of consensus from respondents. This suggests that many members of the public are unaware that alternatives to single-use plastic products, for instance metal or paper straws, can still have negative consequences if not managed properly.

In August 2019, research from think tank Green Alliance highlighted that all single-use products, whatever the material, will have a harmful environmental impact.

Commenting on the draft legislation, Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), said: “While on the face of it, banning the sale of these single-use plastic items seems a sensible step, the reality is that straws, stirrers and cotton buds represent only a drop in the ocean when it comes to tackling the sustainability challenges associated with poorly-designed, wasteful products and packaging.

“Responding to consumer and media pressure, these particular items are already being replaced with single-use paper and wood equivalents, which typically are not recycled anyway.

“Far better would be to incentivise the use of more durable, reusable products, or new formats for which a mainstream recycling solution already exists.”

“A properly considered extended producer responsibility regime (EPR), which imposes modulated fees on the sale of goods based on how sustainable a product is, which in part would be determined by how easily re-used or recycled an item is, will remove the need for piecemeal legislation like this.

“This form of producer responsibility is already part of Defra’s [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] holistic resources and waste strategy, and getting the appropriate legislation through Parliament to make this strategy a reality should be the government’s focus.”

EU Single-Use Plastic Directive

Perceived unnecessary single-use items have become the focus of the ongoing backlash against plastic, not only for the public but also for businesses and governments. MEPs have voted to ban 10 of the most commonly used and littered single-use plastic products in the EU, including cotton bud sticks, cutlery, straws, stirrers and polystyrene containers.

Member states have until 2021 to adopt the legislation, which also includes an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme for abandoned fishing equipment and a 90 per cent separate collection target for plastic bottles by 2029.

Meanwhile, businesses across the UK have also made commitments to reduce their use of single-use plastics.

The UK Plastics Pact, launched in April 2018, has seen a range of major food, drink and non-food brands, manufacturers and retailers commit to eliminating unnecessary single-use plastic packaging by 2025.

In June 2019, the Pact released a list of items to eliminate by the end of 2020, including disposable plastic cutlery, plastic stirrers, straws, cotton buds and plastic plates and bowls.

You can read the summary of consultation responses on the government’s website

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