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England's plastic straw ban: When did it start and why is it happening?

Ban was originally due to come into effect from April 2020

Sarah Young
Thursday 01 October 2020 11:13 BST
Coronavirus PPE pollution: Can we stop the mounting plastic pandemic?

In March 2019, legislation to ban the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds in England was laid in Parliament, marking an important step in the government’s fight against single-use plastics.

At the time, Michael Gove confirmed that the ban followed an open consultation, which revealed “overwhelming” public support for the move. “Urgent and decisive action is needed to tackle plastic pollution and protect our environment,” Mr Gove said.

“These items are often used for just a few minutes but take hundreds of years to break down, ending up in our seas and oceans and harming precious marine life.

“So today I am taking action to turn the tide on plastic pollution, and ensure we leave our environment in a better state for future generations.”

While the ban, which was originally due to come into effect from April 2020, was welcomed by campaigners, some warned that it will “only scratch the surface” in tackling the damage non-degradable waste is doing to the environment.

Sam Chetan-Welsh, political campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “It’s been a long time coming, but we welcome the news that the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are finally enforcing a ban on throwaway plastics like straws, cotton buds and stirrers. The reality is though that these bans only scratch the surface.

“To really tackle the plastic crisis we need bigger bolder action from this government – including targets to radically reduce the production of single-use plastics and an all-inclusive deposit return scheme for drinks containers.”

So, when did the ban start, why is it happening and what are the best plastic-free alternatives? Here is everything you need to know.

What products does the ban include?

The ban includes all single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and applies to all businesses that supply these products, including manufacturers and retailers.

However, DEFRA states that there are some exemptions to the rule to ensure that those with medical needs or a disability are able to continue to access plastic straws.

Catering establishments such as restaurants, pubs and bars will not be able to display plastic straws, automatically hand them out, or offer them – however, these establishments will be able to provide them on request.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “We must turn the tide on the widespread use of single-use plastics and the threat they pose to our natural environments. Our ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds is yet another measure to clamp down on unnecessary plastic so we can better protect our precious wildlife and leave our environment in a better state for future generations.

“This ban strikes the right balance, ensuring that we accommodate those with medical needs or disabilities while also protecting the environment.”

When does it come into force?

The ban was originally intended to come into effect from April 2020. However, the move faced some delays and did not begin in England until 1 October 2020.

Customers are no longer able to buy these products in shops in England.

Why was the ban postponed?

In April, DEFRA confirmed that due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and subsequent disruption to businesses, England’s ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds was being delayed until October.

Ministers decided to delay the ban because of the impact on businesses from the outbreak and wanted to avoid additional burdens for firms at this challenging time.

“Given the huge challenges posed to businesses by coronavirus, we have confirmed we will delay the introduction of our ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds until October 2020,” a DEFRA spokesperson said.

“We remain absolutely committed to turning the tide on the widespread use of single-use plastics and the threat they pose to our natural environment.”

Why is the ban happening?

The ban is part of the government’s commitment to eliminating all avoidable plastic waste over the lifetime of the 25 Year Environment Plan, which builds on commitments such as imposing charges on single-use plastic items; implementing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers; and introducing more consistent recycling services for households and businesses across England.

According to recent government figures, it is estimated that 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds are used in England every year.

An estimated 10 per cent of cotton buds are also flushed down toilets and can end up in waterways and oceans.

The government’s initial consultation revealed that 80 per cent of respondents backed a ban on the distribution and sale of plastic straws, while 90 per cent backed a ban on drinks stirrers, and 89 percent supported a ban on cotton buds.

It is estimated there is over 150 million tonnes of plastic waste polluting the world’s oceans and every year around a million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals die from eating and getting tangled in plastic waste.

What else is the UK doing to crackdown on plastic waste?

The plastic microbeads ban came into force across the UK in 2018, and the 5p plastic bag charge was introduced in 2015 – which the government says has led to nine billion fewer bags distributed.

The UK Government under Prime Minister Theresa May had set out an ambition to “work towards all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.”

This followed on from, and is intended to support, commitments to leave the environment in a better condition for the next generation, with a target of zero avoidable waste by 2050 and of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042.

What are the best alternatives?

There are now a variety of different types of plastic-free straws that people can buy on the high street, including those made from bamboo, wheat, stainless steal and glass.

You can find The Independent’s roundup of the best reusables straws here.

Instead of plastic, you can also buy planet-friendly cotton buds which are made from materials such as recycled cardboard or bamboo, like these ones from The Humble Co.

Whereas plastic cotton swabs are discarded after seconds of use but live on for years as a pollutant, these versions can simply be thrown in your organic waste or compost bin. 

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