Government steps up purge of single-use plastic

New proposals to ban plates, cutlery and cups may seem like an easy win for ministers, but the arguments over plastic bans will roll on. David Burrows reports.

Single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups are among the items that could be banned in England as part of a public consultation due to be launched this autumn.

Defra said the market restrictions will lead to businesses “using more sustainable alternatives and prevent plastic litter from polluting our landscapes”.

The plans could have a serious impact on foodservice businesses, with alternatives up to double the price of plastic equivalents.

However, an initial impact assessment on plastic plates, cutlery and balloon sticks, conducted for Defra, suggested the costs of the ban would be “generally small or negligible overall” given that many businesses have moved or will move away from plastic voluntarily.

The stakeholders interviewed from the foodservice and retail sectors expressed “measured support for a ban”, according to Resource Futures, the consultancy that carried out the assessment. Many companies have seen this policy coming and will be eager for the consultation to start.

Indeed, businesses rely on certainty but Defra has been dragging its feet over these bans. England has restricted the use of single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, but has been dithering over extending this to other items found to be the most commonly littered on Europe’s beaches.

Under Article 5 of the EU Directive 2019/904 – also known as the single-use plastics directive (SUPD) – member states should have bans in place on a range of items by now. The UK is no longer a member so doesn’t have to comply.

But Scotland has consulted on the bans (and is currently assessing feedback) while Wales had originally expected to introduce them in the first half of 2021. Both nations want to align with the SUPD and therefore their consultations offered little in the way of surprises (apart from a debate about the inclusion of bowls in Scotland).

So now England is playing catch-up. As Footprint reported, plans to consult on this were actually announced in the government’s waste prevention programme consultation, published in March. Now the consultation has been formally announced (if not published) officials should prepare for a battle over their ban plans.

Some campaigners want the government to go further and faster to reduce the use of plastic.

Some in industry will point to the ‘unintended consequences’ of switching to other materials, for example paper, card or compostables (though the latter are also within the scope of the proposed bans in Scotland). The government has promised that impact assessments for future bans on single-use plastics “will continue to assess the potential for substitution to single-use items made of other materials, to ensure that any ban really is a sustainable approach”. 

Another hot topic will be whether the items commonly found littered on England’s beaches are the same as those found in Europe. Jo Morley, head of campaigns at City to Sea, welcomed the news that the government is taking steps to tackle “some of the most polluting single-use items”. This is likely to be contested by some of those in the foodservice industry.

They will point to the March 2020 litter composition analysis, commissioned by Defra and conducted by Keep Britain Tidy, which showed plastic cutlery scrapes into the top 15 litter types by count but isn’t one of the most littered items by volume. At sites where there were bins, 83% of forks, knives and spoons were binned.

Expect that analysis to be unpicked in some detail. The big-ticket packaging items by volume were plastic bottles, cans and coffee cups. More than a quarter (25.4%) of the litter by volume was cans.

These bans are no silver bullet. Evidence that they encourage reuse is sparse. “[…] further consumer market research and modelling is suggested regarding the size of the impacts associated with an overall reduction in product use and an increase in the use of reusables”, the initial impact assessment reads.

That was conducted three years ago now. Meanwhile, the argument that policies should encompass all single-use materials, rather than just plastic, has been gaining support. It will certainly be in the spotlight in coming weeks as the environment bill – which will introduce the legal framework under which ministers can more easily ban or restrict single-use plastic items – enters its final lap.

The Lords report stage starts today [Monday September 6th]. Peers will be urging the government to consider and accept amendments, including one to ensure the clauses around single-use are expanded beyond plastics. Failure to do so would present a “missed opportunity” to drive progress towards the government’s ambitions on waste minimisation and reduction, said Signe Norberg, head of public affairs and communications at the Aldersgate Group.

In a report published last year, the think tank Green Alliance claimed that the current “piecemeal approach to preventing marine plastic pollution is not only unlikely to deliver significant improvement, it risks detracting from the wider need to improve the sustainability of resources used and cut waste across the country”. When thinking about these bans, bear in mind that the SUPD is about more than marine litter – it is about tackling the current throwaway culture.

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