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Plastic straws banned in England from Thursday (1 October)

Single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds will be banned from sale and distribution in England from Thursday (1 October), following Covid-19 related delays.

In 2018, five billion single-use plastic straws entered circulation in England

The Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) first confirmed legislation to phase these items in May 2019, initially setting the deadline for April 2020.

In light of the impact of Covid-19 on the supply chains of these items – and with public health concerns taking priority over plastics reduction – Defra confirmed in April that the date would be changed to 1 October.

The Department has this week confirmed to media representatives and green campaign groups that this decision will be upheld. Businesses will be encouraged to switch to alternatives such as paper-based materials or to remove the items altogether.

No business or organisation will be exempt from the rule, regardless of its size or how many of the items it sells or gives away. However, establishments like hospitals, bars, restaurants and cafes will need to make plastic straws available to those with disabilities or other medical needs upon request.

Pre-pandemic, Defra estimated that the decision would mitigate the use of five billion straws and 300 million plastic stirrers annually. The figure is likely to be lower in the short-term, with businesses that often distribute these items, like airlines and nightclubs, affected by the pandemic.

As for cotton buds with plastic stems, the UK currently uses close to two billion per year. Many major retailers have gotten ahead of the legislation curve by phasing them out already, including Waitrose and the Co-op.

With this in mind, and with businesses like McDonald’s UK, Hilton, Ikea, Greene King, Premier Inn and Costa having either outlined plans for straw phase-outs or completed this action, City to Sea has accused the government of “playing catch-up” with the private sector.

“The government will rightly be receiving plaudits for the banning of some of the worst items that cause plastic pollution… [but] these measures are a drop in a plastic polluted ocean and they need to quickly scale up their plans as a matter of urgency,” the non-profit’s chief executive Natalie Fee said.

City to Sea has been calling on Ministers to integrate the measures outlined in the draft Phase-Out of Plastic Pollution Bill to the Environment Bill before Royal Assent is given. The former of these Bills is broadly aligned with the EU’s Single-Use Directive, headlined by a 2025 target to remove all “non-essential” single-use plastics from sale and distribution.

International action

The European Commission’s single-use plastic directive was adopted in June last year and introduced bans on selected throw-away items such as cutlery, beverage cups, balloon sticks, straws and cotton bud sticks.

Some industry groups had called for the ban to be lifted because of health and hygiene concerns raised during the COVID-19 outbreak but the commission refused to readjust the legislation in line with these demands.

Here in the UK, Wales - which is not covered by Defra's remit - is planning to bring "restrictions" around certain single-use plastic items, including straws and cotton buds, into effect in the first half of 2021. Stirrers, cutlery, plates, balloon sticks, expanded polystyrene and controversial oxo-degradable plastics will also face tougher legislation. 

Further afield, stricter plastics bans are currently being carried out by the likes of Kenya, New York and California.


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