7 November, 2018

Resource Futures was commissioned by the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to undertake a preliminary impact assessment of a ban on plastic straws, plastic stirrers and plastic stemmed cotton buds.

Single use plastics, including plastic stemmed cotton buds, plastic drinking straws and plastic drinks stirrers, are associated with negative effects on the environment through littering, marine debris, greenhouse gas emissions, and use of finite resources. These products are an example of market failure where the environmental and social costs are not incorporated into the price of the products, and consumers are not incentivised to use and dispose of them responsibly. This project sought to understand the impacts of a potential ban causing consumers to switch to plastic-free alternatives.

Objectives

The outputs were intended to inform future discussions around whether a potential ban would be advantageous, ahead of further research and impact assessment modelling. Through this project Defra sought to understand the UK market for each product, its use by consumers and the likely product substitute or change in behaviour that would result from a ban. Unintended consequences and groups negatively affected by a ban were also explored.

Approach

Our research, which was undertaken between March and April 2018, comprised an evidence review, engagement of key stakeholders and preliminary impact modelling. Stakeholders we consulted included representatives from retail, wholesale, manufacturing, packaging, producer responsibility compliance schemes, environmental NGOs, disability groups, the water industry and government.

In the impact model we estimated the economic, environmental and social impacts of a ban, including impacts upon UK business, GVA, greenhouse gas emissions, and terrestrial and beach litter. Other impacts were described qualitatively.

Outcomes

We found that plastic stemmed cotton buds and plastic straws are habitually discarded incorrectly. Cotton buds are flushed down toilets and plastic straws are commonly found in litter and marine debris. The sewerage infrastructure is not effective at screening out these items, allowing them to pass through and enter the marine environment.

Discussions with key stakeholders during the research revealed a universal ban for plastic stemmed cotton buds would be welcomed, with widespread support for action on stirrers and for certain types of straws. Shifting to plastic-free alternatives for these products would represent a first step towards addressing a significant market failure. A ban would hasten and increase the extent of change in the market. It would also serve to level the playing field and strengthen the plastic-free market by protecting it from competition with low-priced plastic imports.

Further consultation is recommended to better understand options for certain markets and will likely require exemptions for medical uses and for some disabled and other medical patient groups. Other markets, such as small beverage cartons, may require a lead-in time to develop plastic-free or strawless alternatives to their current designs.