Plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds will be banned in the UK from next April, the government has confirmed in its latest attempt to stem the flow of waste and promote the use of recyclable materials.
The move comes amid a spate of targeted action on the use of single use plastic. On Monday, Amazon-owned retailer Whole Foods said it would remove all plastic straws from its stores in the US, UK and Canada by July of this year.
“Urgent and decisive action is needed to tackle plastic pollution and protect our environment,” said Michael Gove, the environment secretary. “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.”
The news follows a 13-month consultation on the proposed regulations during which concerns were raised that some people with medical needs and disabilities who rely on plastic straws will be put at risk by the regulation, prompting the government to include exemptions for these groups.
When the ban takes effect, shops will not be allowed to display or hand out plastic straws but they will be able to give them out on request. The government said this “strikes the right balance between reducing the environmental impact while protecting the rights of people with medical conditions and disabilities”.
More than 80 per cent of people consulted by the government supported a ban on the sale and distribution of plastic straws while 90 per cent supported a ban on drinks stirrers and cotton buds.
Sam Chetan-Welsh, political campaigner for environment group Greenpeace UK, welcomed the move but said the moves “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,” he said.
Mr Gove is working to develop a scheme where consumers will have to pay a deposit when purchasing plastic bottles, though the proposal has come under criticism for its narrow scope.
Andrew Opie, food and sustainability director at the British Retail Consortium, said many retailers were working to identify how they can reduce reliance on plastics and increase recycling, including ambitions to make 100 per cent of plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.
Government research published last year found that in England, an estimated 4.7bn plastic straws, 316m plastic stirrers and 1.8bn plastic-stemmed cotton buds are used each year. About 10 per cent of cotton buds are believed to be flushed down toilets and often end up in waterways and oceans.
A global analysis, published in 2017, estimated that 8.3bn tonnes of plastics has been produced since the industry began to expand after the second world war and around four-fifths of this has been dumped as waste, often washing up on coastlines.