The final straw – a ban on single use plastics but how did we get here?

18 June 2019

As the dust settles on the Government’s announcement to ban single use plastic such as plastic drinking straws, cotton buds and drink stirrers, Principal Consultant Bernie Thomas considers the journey that has led us here.

Roll back to January 2016 and the headline of ‘more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050’ was splashed across the media thanks to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Institute: Rethinking the Future of Plastics. It was not until October 2017 that the widely attributed catalyst for rising UK plastic pollution consciousness, Blue Planet 2, hit our screens. Meanwhile, straws have played an iconic role across this journey with pictures of a stricken turtle, a straw embedded in his nostril, continuing to circle global social media channels – an emotive and powerful visual tugging at the hearts of the most hardened consumers.

single use plastic advertising
Marine Conservation Society Advert, 2018

Fortunately, the emotionally charged plastics debate has been underpinned by research, consultation and analysis. The last 18 months have seen Defra, Scottish Government and the EU proposing new policy measures to tackle the plastics problem. Resource Futures has played a significant role in shaping these solutions from designing guidance which takes a ‘use-based approach to plastic waste’, to assessing the potential impacts of policy measures and providing analysis on government consultations.

Designing interventions to tackle plastic waste

As our ‘Eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042’ report detailed in June 2018, there is no single ‘silver bullet’  intervention. Instead, our stakeholder engagement for this guidance recommended several potential measures including:

  • Command & control instruments (e.g. regulatory such as bans or restrictions)
  • Technical (e.g. sorting technology capacity and/or innovation)
  • Economic (e.g. financial instruments such as innovation funds or deposit return schemes, Extended Producer Responsibility fees)
  • Communicative (e.g. supporting the market to make informed decisions)

The guidance offered a use-based life cycle approach to decision and policy making according to the lifetime of a product, noting that approximately 60% of plastics by weight are designed to be in use for less than 2 years (see below). This is in cases where these plastics are:

  1. systematically becoming litter causing environmental and economic damage
  2. products cannot be avoided/prevented
  3. in a market, where product alternatives exist which provide suitable functionality

…a market failure has occurred and there is a case for government intervention to address, through a measure such as a ban.

Use-phase based approach to plastics; addressing single use plastic

Assessing potential social, economic and environmental impacts

Nonetheless, implementing a command and control instrument such as a ban is a blunt instrument. It can therefore have unintended consequences. While it may be a popular and immediate solution, Defra asked Resource Futures to consider the possible effects and conduct an impact assessment of the social, economic and environmental impacts of the potential ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and drinks stirrers.

The research indicated that a ban would serve to accelerate the change in each market and could harmonise the market at a modest cost. A ban would reduce litter disamenity impact and would be unlikely to have significant secondary impacts on the economy. Plastic-free items would disintegrate within significantly shorter timescales (months rather than years) and finite material resources would also be saved.

Consulting broader stakeholders

Although public consultations are not mandatory, they can be used to engage industry stakeholders and concerned individuals effectively and are often deployed when a policy may have significant impacts and to help inform plans or policies at a formative stage. The ban on plastic straws is the first to tackle the list of most commonly found plastic products found on beaches, singled out by the EU in its provisional agreement for introducing single use plastic rules.

In this case, the government consultation yielded more than 1,600 responses, which were then analysed and summarised by Resource Futures: Single use plastic: banning the distribution and/or sale of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England

The research and consultation identified the potential unintended impact on disability groups who depend on flexible plastic drinking straws and who would be disadvantaged by a ban, as well as the medical community citing accessibility challenges, leading to the ban including ‘some exceptions.’

Choosing a market restriction approach, such as a ban, is appropriate where acceptable non-plastic alternatives exist. But a ban is not appropriate for all single-use plastics; some provide necessary and superior performance and this has benefits over the product life cycle.

The ban on plastic drinking straws, plastic stemmed cotton buds and plastic stirrers is due to come into force in England by April 2020.

The good news in this case is that a ban can have significant and positive outcomes, not just on the environment but economically too. A restriction such as a ban changes and harmonises the market, stimulating innovation and new opportunity. A ban would ideally be complemented with other point of use initiatives such as straws moved behind the counter and/or available on request as well as consumer messaging. A combined approach could be effective at reducing unnecessary consumption and ensuring avoidable waste (and the associated impact of that waste) is eliminated.

We look forward to a future solving environmental challenges through well thought out policies and measures, stimulating change through innovation and driving opportunity for all.

+++ Update: 1 October 2020

After an initial delay in implementation from April 2020 due to Covid-19, the legislation banning single-use plastic drinking straws, plastic stemmed cotton buds and drink stirrers from sale and distribution in England was implemented on 1 October 2020. No businesses or organisations are exempted from the rule, regardless of size or number of items sold. However, hospitals, bars, restaurants and cafes are required to make plastic straws available to those with disabilities or other medical needs upon request.