Plastic policies in a pickle

Delayed consultations and rows over definitions are creating a chaotic policy environment. The internal markets bill is set to further muddy the waters. David Burrows reports.           

On October 1st the Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force banning the sale of single-use straws, stirrers and cotton buds.  The same products made from other materials can continue to be sold, as can those of “reusable alternatives”, according to the government’s guidance. Plastic products bought prior to October 1st can be sold up until April 1st 2021.

Due to the “huge challenges posed to businesses by coronavirus”, the ban came into effect six months later than expected. Still, it nudged England ahead of Scotland – which had already banned cotton buds in October 2019 – and set the government up nicely for another series of market restrictions.

Under article 5 of the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) member states also have to ban single-use plastic cutlery, plates (and bowls), food containers and cups made of expanded polystyrene and balloon sticks. There can also be no oxo-degradable products. And this all needs to be in place by July next year.

The UK is no longer a member so doesn’t have to comply. However ministers that have spent the past four years promising to meet or exceed EU environmental regulations would find it hard to push back on these particular policies.

The bans have considerable implications for food-to-go of course – chefs already shudder at the idea of their meals being eaten with wooden forks that can “ruin” a meal, according to one packaging firm. Furthermore, as Zero Waste Scotland’s David Barnes noted in a piece for Footprint last week, the government wants firms to be thinking not about substitution but reuse.

Scotland has just started consulting on the bans. Wales has already finished. Both want to align with the SUPD and therefore the consultations offer little in the way of surprises. “Businesses rely on certainty,” Justin Turquet, head of sustainability at Bunzl, told me last week. “It’s good that [the Welsh and Scottish governments] are starting to engage.”

With certainty in scant supply such industry engagement is invaluable. Which is why some have begun to wonder where England’s consultation is? Defra has a lot going on, of course – Brexit, covid-19, the agriculture and environment bills – but on plastics it’s all gone quiet.

Michael Gove certainly pushed the plastics agenda hard, but his successor George Eustice seems less enthusiastic.

Discussions are apparently ongoing with devolved nations in relation to oxo-degradables – which are presented and marketed as biodegradable but in reality break down into small fragments, according to the consultations. “If you wanted a system in which you could get small bits of plastic into the marine and food web, oxo-degradables would be that system,” says Libby Peake, head of resources at Green Alliance, a think tank. “Even if it is biodegradable,” Peake adds, “we are starting at the wrong end by making something safe to litter.”

Some packaging firms are being asked to supply products that meet what The Guardian called a “new British standard for biodegradable plastic”. This was in reference to PAS9017, which is actually pretty specific: “This PAS will be used for any polyolefinic material to demonstrate its ability to fully biodegrade under specified conditions,” notes the British Standards Institute. Polyolefins include polyethylene and polypropylene, while the conditions relate to an “open air terrestrial environment” (so, not the sea). The BSI insists this isn’t a standard for oxo-degradable plastics. But food businesses including Sodexo, Tesco and Aldi, as well as industry groups and NGOs, recently signed a letter published in The Telegraph claiming that it is “similar”.

For this and many other reasons, the results of the UK government’s consultation on biodegradable and compostable standards can’t come soon enough. There is a lot to thrash out. Even the European Commission is still discussing the definition of plastic so perhaps Defra is waiting on that?

Of course, the UK doesn’t have to implement the SUPD – it’s no longer an EU member. Indeed, there is an argument that, with the internal markets bill in its current guise, Wales and Scotland could find their plastic policies in a pickle. This was picked up in an October report by the Centre on Constitutional Change, in which single-use plastics were presented as a “useful example” of how the bill narrows the territorial scope of devolved legislation.

The report states: “Since October 1st 2020, single-use straws, cotton buds and stirrers have been banned in England. From mid-2021, the Welsh Government is looking to ban a wider range of single-use plastic items, including balloon sticks, plates and cutlery. The bill would not prevent the Senedd from legislating to ban single-use plastics in such products, but such a ban would only apply to goods produced in Wales, or directly imported into Wales from outside the UK. They would not apply to goods entering Wales from other parts of the UK, nor could the Welsh Government prevent such products from being sold in Wales.”

In other words, a ban that could only apply to Welsh (or Scottish) produced plastics would undermine the policy and render it ineffective. “The effect of the UK internal market bill is to significantly undermine the purpose of devolution, which was to enable the devolved nations to legislate according to their own local needs and political preferences,” said Professor Nicola McEwen from the University of Edinburgh.

Indeed, these bans are not the worry here: England will likely strike off most if not all the items on the SUPD’s list. But this is just one part of the directive, and indeed a range of policies designed not just to single out widely littered plastic items but minimise resource use and create a circular economy. Wales, Scotland and England have all said they’re on board with this and businesses, not least those reliant on disposable packaging like foodservice and hospitality, will need to change. How much and how quickly remains unclear.

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