Single-use plastic – are you keeping up with the planned changes?

Hands placing bottles in recycling bin Print publication


As we reported in July 2018, Government has been considering for some time legislation banning the sale of single-use plastics in the UK amid concerns that their use is causing serious environmental problems.

As the name suggests, single-use plastics are plastic items that are used only once. They are heavily used in the food and drink industry because of the industry’s reliance on packaging and convenience items. Single-use plastic includes things like coffee stirrers, plastic cutlery and plates, bottles, plastic straws, ready-meal packaging and plastic bags.

Following an open consultation, Government announced at the end of May 2019 that it has decided to ban the distribution and sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. The ban will take effect in April 2020.

It should be noted that the use of these plastic items is not banned. Restaurants and bars, for example, will not be allowed to display plastic straws or stirrers or offer them to customers but if a customer requests one then they can be provided. The ban does not cover plastic straws, stirrers or cotton buds that are used for scientific or medical purposes.

In a similar move, in March 2019 the European Parliament passed a directive (which gained EU Council approval in May) which introduces a complete ban on many single-use plastics if there is already a non-plastic alternative. The ban will cover plastic cutlery & plates, cups, cotton buds, straws, stirrers and food & drink containers made of expanded polystyrene. Where there isn’t currently a non-plastic alternative, the directive stipulates that there must be a 25% reduction in the use of plastic. Member States will have two years to implement the directive following its publication, which is likely later in 2019.

At the end of May 2019, the European Commission announced that new rules would be introduced in the following areas:

  • Single-use plastic: Single-use drinks containers made with plastic will only be allowed on the market if their caps and lids remain attached (or ‘tethered’);
  • Obligations for producers: Producers will help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers (such as for crisps and sweets), drinks containers and cups, tobacco products with filters (such as cigarette butts), wet wipes, balloons, and lightweight plastic bags. The industry will also be given incentives to develop less polluting alternatives for these products;
  • Collection targets: Member States will be obliged to collect 90% of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, for example through deposit refund schemes;
  • Labelling requirements: Certain products will require a clear and standardised labelling which indicates how waste should be disposed, the negative environmental impact of the product, and the presence of plastics in the products; and
  • Awareness-raising measures: Member States will be obliged to raise consumers’ awareness about the negative impact of littering of single-use plastics and fishing gear as well as about the available re-use systems and waste management options for all these products.

Finally, Government has announced that from April 2022 it will introduce a new tax on the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. The consultation has just closed so details of the new tax should be published relative soon.

WM Comment

We will keep you updated with the implementation of these proposals into law.