Ban could be in place in just 12 months - but is it a win-win for the environment and businesses?
Ever since the images of seabird chicks choking on plastic straws were aired on Blue Planet II, the days of plastic straws in the UK have been numbered. In April Prime Minister Theresa May announced the government's intention to ban them, along with other "unnecessary" single-use plastic items. And this morning the UK government finally set out its plan for how such a ban could be implemented.
It's not just plastic straws in the firing line. Under the current proposals, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic stirrers would also be outlawed England. Taken together, the government estimates such a ban would eliminate almost seven million individual plastic items from use in England every year, many of which currently get flushed down the toilet and end up polluting our rivers and oceans.
"Our precious oceans and the wildlife within need urgent protection from the devastation throw-away plastic items can cause," Environment Secretary Michael Gove said this morning as he launched the consultation. "I commend retailers, bars and restaurants that have already committed to removing plastic straws and stirrers. But we recognise we need to do more. Today we step-up our efforts to turn the tide on plastic pollution and ensure we leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it."
Environmental campaigners have also welcomed the news. "Our society's addiction to throwaway plastic is fuelling a global environmental crisis that must be tackled," said Greenpeace UK's political adviser Sam Chetan Welsh. "Ministers are doing the sensible thing by looking to ban single-use plastic items that can be easily replaced with better alternatives or that we can simply do without."
Similarly, the release of the consultation was "wholeheartedly welcomed" by the hospitality sector, with Kate Nicholls, CEO of UK Hospitality pointing out that many companies have already taken voluntary action on the issue.
But how will the ban work - and crucially, is it a straight-up win for the environment? The answers to those questions are more complicated than it might first appear.
Firstly, the ban will extend to all plastic straws and stirrers, even those made with biodegradable or compostable plastics, which as the government points out, often require very specific conditions to fully break down and still run the risk of releasing microplastics in oceans and waterways. However, if compostable and biodegradeable plastic technology advances, the government says it would be open to offering "targeted exemptions" in the future.
Meanwhile, some plastic straws would be allowed after the ban enters force for medical reasons, the consultation adds. "The government recognises that there are a number of vital uses for straws particularly for the elderly and disabled, those who might find it difficult to consume drinks due to the impact of a stroke, injury or some other long-term condition, causing significant discomfort," the consultation points out. About 44 million plastic straws could still be in use after the ban for this reason, the government says.
Depending on the responses to the six-week consultation, and other pressures on government and parliamentary time, the ban could be in place by October 2019, the government said. Overall, despite the exemptions, it is expected to dramatically reduce the volume of small plastic objects ending up as litter each year.
So far, so straightforward. But swapping plastic straws and stirrers for paper alternatives is not necessarily a win-win move for everyone. Firstly, about 95 per cent of the 4.7 billion plastic straws used in England every year are made from plastic. A ban enacted in late 2019 would mean paper would take the market share for straws over plastic by 2020, according to the government.
But paper straws are more expensive to manufacture, the government admits. And for manufacturers producing plastic straws for use with drinks cartons and pouches, the costs of switching to a paper alternative - or redesigning packaging altogether - are likely to be above average. Some packaging giants are already striving for a head start in this space - Tetra Pak said earlier this month that it would have a paper straw ready for the market by the end of the year, but some may well be caught unawares by a ban scheduled for less than 12 months' time.
In its Impact Assessment the government estimates a ban on plastic straws is likely to cost businesses £4.3m, although this should be balanced against a reduction in the volume of litter on beaches and countryside, worth £7.6m over the next decade.
Paper straws do tend to be more environmentally friendly to produce - assuming that is the paper is sourced from sustainable forests. For each tonne of material produced, plastic polypropylene emits 3.08 tonnes of CO2e, whereas paper production only emits 0.93t, according to government analysis. Meanwhile, paper straws are cleaner to incinerate than plastic straws, thanks to the energy recaptured during the process, although they do emit more carbon than plastic if left to rot in landfill. Overall, the government concludes that a ban on plastic straws would reduce carbon emissions by almost 5,000 tonnes over the next decade.
But clearly, discouraging the use of straws altogether would have the most beneficial impact, both for wildlife and carbon emissions.
For plastic-stemmed cotton buds, a switch to paper stemmed cotton buds would mean the 10 per cent of buds still flushed down the toilet would likely be caught by sewage treatment systems, or biodegrade in the marine environment rather than cause damage to seabirds and other wildlife.
Most manufacturers have in fact already switched away from plastic-stemmed cotton buds voluntarily, so the government expects a ban on these items would help to create a "level playing field" across the market with little additional cost to businesses.
The same is true of plastic stirrers, of which England uses around 316 million a year. The government is proposing an outright ban on the sale or distribution of plastic drink stirrers in the UK after October 2019, and expects most businesses to switch to wood alternatives. Providing the wood is sustainably sourced, this could prove a more sustainable alternative to plastic - but there are no guarantees this would be the case.
Clearly, the government's intervention to cut the use of single-use plastics such as straws and stirrers will alleviate some of the damage being done to wildlife and the marine habitat across the country. But the government's own assessments suggest replacing these items with paper and wood alternatives will only deliver a carbon benefit if the supply chain is carefully managed to require sustainable sourcing policies and the strict avoidance of landfill. Meanwhile, costs for businesses will go up - costs that will be likely passed on to the consumer.
The proposed ban may well create a "level playing field" in terms of the products on sale, but it seems that for responsible companies curbing material use will still have to take priority over simply switching from plastic to paper.
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