February 3, 2023

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England bans some single-use plastics. Activists say it’s a small step.

When England announced over the weekend that it would ban several single-use plastic items, including cutlery and plates, environmentalists greeted the measure with a clapping rather than a thunderous applause, seeing it as a measure better late than never, leaving further changes needed .

While grateful for action, several activists said the move came well after similar action by England’s neighbors and has not been ambitious in addressing the proliferation of single-use plastic, which ends up in landfills and oceans and takes decades to break down.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Nina Schrank, a senior activist at Greenpeace UK. “But it’s a small step.”

From October England will ban single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery and some styrofoam cups and food containers. The government said England uses an estimated 2.7 billion pieces of single-use cutlery and 721 million single-use plates a year, but that only 10 per cent is recycled.

England banned plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers in 2020. Announcing the new ban on Saturday, government officials said they were looking at further measures, including a ban on plastic items like wet wipes and tobacco filters, or mandatory labeling to help people dispose of such items properly.

England’s Environment Department said in a statement that the government would “go ahead” with a plan for a deposit return initiative for drink containers and “consistent recycling collections in England”.

Rebecca Pow, Secretary of the Environment, said in a statement: “Plastic is a scourge ravaging our roads and beautiful countryside and I am committed that we move away from a single-use culture.”

Governments around the world have introduced single-use plastic bans to reduce plastic, most commonly focused on products like straws and bags that can be made from other materials.

Advocates say the bans have been largely successful in limiting the types of plastic products targeted, but that a broader approach is needed. And they say England has fallen behind its peers after Brexit separated Britain from Europe.

The European Union passed a ban on single-use plastic items in 2018, which came into effect three years later. England’s neighbors Scotland and Wales each banned a similar list of items last year. (Northern Ireland, the fourth constituent country in Great Britain, does not have this.)

The United States has not banned single-use plastic products at the federal level, but some cities and states have their own bans on items, including plastic bags and straws. Some states, like California, have gone even further to reduce single-use plastic items, with the goal of phasing out single-use packaging that isn’t recyclable or compostable.

The European ban has had mixed results, with some countries showing more progress than others, according to a report by Seas at Risk, a Brussels-based group. The ban eliminated 10 single-use plastics but didn’t stop member countries from going further. The European directive also looks at other common forms of single-use plastic, including takeaway food containers, which England has not banned.

“If you just ban some items and overlook other products, that’s not enough,” said Frédérique Mongodin, Seas at Risk’s senior policy officer for marine litter.

As for the timing of the move? “It’s very late,” she said.

With the European directive underway, campaigners are looking beyond individual product bans to take action, including promoting reusable containers.

Ms Wardrobe, the Greenpeace official, said many of the biggest sources of plastic waste remained untouched, including food and food packaging. Snack bags and fruit and vegetable wrappers are among the most common items found in plastic waste, she said.

Rather than addressing them individually, she said she would see an aggressive government target to reduce single-use plastics by 50 percent.

“We’re being fed little treats here while the big real questions go unanswered,” said Ms. Wardrobe.

Also, the problem with disposables is not limited to plastics. Larissa Copello, consumption and production activist for Zero Waste Europe, said replacing single-use plastic with single-use items made from other materials has only helped limitedly.

“The single-use issue isn’t just about plastic, it’s also about single-use paper and single-use glass,” she said. “It’s about consuming products that are used only once and thrown away.”

For activists in the UK, eyes are on what’s next. Steve Hynd, policy manager at City to Sea, a Bristol-based environmental group, said the ban had been welcomed but “these are very well agreed minimum standards”.

“The ban will help England catch up with other countries that introduced similar bans years ago,” he said. “But for England to truly be ‘world leaders’ in tackling plastic pollution, as this government claims, they need to go much further.”