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England will ban single-use plastic plates and cutlery for environmental reasons

The British government is set to announce the full details of the single-use plastics ban on Saturday.
Sean Gallup
Getty Images
The British government is set to announce the full details of the single-use plastics ban on Saturday.

The British government is poised to ban certain single-use plastic products, a long-awaited step towards reducing pollution that environmentalists hope will be just one of many.

The ban will cover plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks and certain kinds of polystyrene cups and food containers, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told The Mail on Sunday.

A department spokesperson confirmed to NPR that the full announcement is coming on Saturday.

"A plastic fork can take 200 years to decompose — that is two centuries in landfill or polluting our oceans," Environment Secretary Therese Coffey told The Mail. "This new ban will have a huge impact to stop the pollution of billions of pieces of plastic and help to protect the natural environment for future generations."

It aims to cut down on plastic pollution

England banned single-use plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in 2020.

This new ban applies specifically to plastic packaging of food and drinks from restaurants and cafes, not in supermarkets and stores. The government plans to address those in a separate scheme that would have manufacturers cover disposal costs starting in 2024.

And it doesn't come as a complete surprise. Environmentalists have long campaigned for this kind of ban in England — Scotland's took effect last summer and Wales approved one in December — and the British government had been soliciting public input on potential plastic bans for some time. Officials indicated last month that restrictions were on the horizon.

(Meanwhile, in the U.S.: Several states and localities have banned certain plastic products, namely bags, and California set the country's strictest rules for plastic reduction in legislation passed last summer. The federal government is planning to phase out single-use plastics at national parks by 2032).

Environmental advocates are applauding England's ban as an important step towards tackling the pervasive problem of plastic pollution, even if it's not enough on its own.

Each person in England uses an average of 18 single-use plastic plates and 37 items of plastic cutlery every year — yet only 10% of that waste is recycled into new things, according to Defra statistics reported by the BBC. Overall, the department says, England uses 1.1 billion single-use plates and 4.3 billion single-use pieces of cutlery annually.

That's both dangerous for the environment and "completely unnecessary," says Steve Hyndside, the policy manager at British nonprofit City to Sea.

He stressed in a Monday interview with radio station LBC that all of the items covered by this ban already have potential replacements on the market, whether that's cardboard boxes, wooden utensils or even one's fingers.

"What we're talking about here is, I think, a really positive vision," Hyndside said. "So as much as we all like the convenience of single-use plastic, and I think there's no point pretending that's not there ... we just can't carry on going as we are."

There is public support for the ban ...

England's 25 Year Environment Plan — established in 2018 — calls for eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

Defra said in Nov. 2021 that while it had already proposed and enacted measures to work towards that goal, those measures did not sufficiently address the issue of single-use plastic items. It sought public input on potential bans in a consultation period that ran through February 2022, which appears to have informed its decision.

"I am determined to drive forward action to tackle this issue head on," Coffey told The Mail. "We know there is more to do, and we have again listened to the public's calls."

Greenpeace UK says the "vast majority" of the more than 51,000 people who self-reported their views on the consultation support a ban on all of the items up for consideration (like cutlery and plates), with support at 96% or above "across the board."

Separately, environmental groups submitted a petition to ban those items, with more than 117,000 signatures, to the prime minister's office when the comment period closed in February.

After reports of the new ban surfaced, environmental groups applauded it as an important move but one of many the government needs to take to make a meaningful difference.

"We need to wean ourselves off single-use items," tweeted environmental organization Keep Britain Tidy. "[Defra's] plans to ban single-use plastic plates and cutlery in England are a step in the right direction."

... and calls for further action

Many would like to see more, and more systemic, changes.

As part of their "Cut the Cutlery" campaign, Greenpeace, City to Sea and 38 Degrees called on the government to work faster to meet the European Union single-use plastic restrictions, which it agreed to before Brexit. They also want it to set its own legally binding targets for 2025, specifically to reduce single-use plastics by 50% and for 25% of plastic to be reusable.

Advocates are also calling for a "deposit return scheme," which would incentivize recycling by charging customers a deposit on beverage containers and refunding it when they return the empty container to a collection point. U.K. officials have said that such a program won't take effect in England, Wales and Northern Ireland until at least late 2024, six years after it was first announced.

Megan Randles, a political campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said in a tweet that "the removal of billions of commonly littered items is never a bad thing" but called the new ban an overdue move and "still a drop in the ocean compared to the action that's needed to stem the plastic tide."

"We need system change at the source - reduction and reuse/refill targets, meaningful extended producer responsibility (so the polluters actually pay) and a deposit return scheme like so many European countries have already," she said.

Hyndside, of City to Sea, described the partial plastics ban as "minimum standards" and called on the government to go further by publishing a full strategy for tackling plastic pollution as a whole.

"We have to move away from all single-use kind of throwaway items," he said, "and try to encourage a more circular economy."

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.