Plastic waste remains one of the most pressing environmental issues both in the UK and globally. Plastic is incredibly durable and non-biodegradable, meaning once it enters the environment it can stay there for hundreds of years, with devastating impacts on wildlife.
Of the five million tonnes of plastic estimated to be used each year, three-quarters becomes waste. Two million tonnes of this is plastic packaging, including almost eight billion single-use plastic bottles.
Single-use plastic items are the most dominant source of litter in our oceans, injuring and killing fish, seabirds and marine mammals.
Each year, millions of people take the challenge of refusing single-use plastic for Plastic-Free July. Following last year’s article, we take a look at the progress in Wales to tackle plastic pollution, and how efforts to curb single-use plastics differ across the UK nations.
Action to ban single-use plastic
Various single-use plastic items are being targeted across the UK, and are either banned already, or proposed to be banned, including:
- cotton bud sticks;
- sticks for balloons;
- food containers made of expanded polystyrene;
- cups for beverages made of expanded polystyrene; and
- oxo-degradable products i.e. material that degrades into smaller fragments or microplastic.
These items have been banned across the EU since July 2021. Whilst the UK is (mostly) no longer required to comply with the EU Directive, there is increasing pressure for UK governments to commit to phasing out certain plastic items.
Waste is a largely devolved area, so it’s up to each nation to decide how it will do this.
A 2020 consultation by the previous Welsh Government set out proposals for banning the nine single use plastic items listed in the EU Directive. Views were also sought on future proposals, including extending the ban to wet wipes.
In his recent legislative statement, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford MS, announced that the Welsh Government will, as an “early priority”:
…bring forward a Bill to ban or restrict the sale of some of the most commonly littered single-use plastics in Wales.
At this point, it’s unknown what will be included in the Bill. However, the Welsh Government hopes “to include a regulatory power for Ministers to be able to add further single-use plastic” items into the legislation “as the evidence around them matures”.
The First Minister clarified the Welsh approach will be akin to that in England, where it will specify a list of specific single-use plastics items, “the use of which will no longer be possible in Wales”.
The Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force in England in July 2021. They restrict the supply (not manufacture) of single-use plastic straws, cotton buds and drink stirrers.
The regulations do not include restrictions on single-use plastic plates, cutlery, balloon sticks or expanded polystyrene food and drink containers. However, a further consultation has taken place (awaiting outcome) on plans to ban the supply of these items.
The Scottish Government says it’s “aim is to match or exceed the standards set” by the EU. As such, it introduced the Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Scotland) Regulations 2021, which are largely in line with the EU Directive and came into force on 1 June 2022. Not included are plastic stemmed cotton buds, as these are already banned in Scotland, and oxo-degradable plastics as:
This is a complex and rapidly changing area and as such the Scottish Government is currently collecting further information before taking a final decision.
Unlike in England, the Scottish regulations ban both the manufacture and supply of certain items.
All restrictions in force (across EU, England and Scotland) have specified exemptions, for example, to cater for medical needs.
Whilst the UK is no longer required to comply with the EU Directive, Northern Ireland is required to adopt certain articles under the provisions agreed as part of part of the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement Northern Ireland Protocol (as amended). Northern Ireland had an extended deadline of January 2022 to implement these measures, however there is currently no ban in place.
The Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs consulted on policy options for reducing certain single-use plastic items. The Northern Ireland Assembly states the obligation to adopt the EU Directive is “for the UK Government to deliver”.
It is unknown what impact the Northern Ireland Bill might have on this obligation.
Figure 1. How do single-use plastic bans differ across the UK
|Plastic item||Wales||England||Scotland||Northern Ireland|
|Drink stirrers||Proposed ban||Ban on supply||Ban on manufacture and supply||No proposals|
|Cotton buds||Proposed ban||Ban on supply||Ban on manufacture and supply||No proposals|
|Straws||Proposed ban||Ban on supply||Ban on supply||No proposals|
|Single-use plates||Proposed ban||Proposed ban on supply||Ban on manufacture and supply||No proposals|
|Single-use cutlery||Proposed ban||Proposed ban on supply||Ban on manufacture and supply||No proposals|
|Balloon sticks||Proposed ban||Proposed ban on supply||Ban on supply||No proposals|
|Expanded polystyrene containers e.g. takeaway food and drink containers||Proposed ban||Proposed ban on supply||Ban on manufacture and supply||No proposals|
|Oxo-degradable products||Proposed ban||No proposals||Proposed ban||No proposals|
*n.b ‘proposed ban’ refers to proposals that have been consulted on and are expected to come into force. No date has been set for any ‘proposed ban’ listed.
How are UK nations working together?
Upcoming ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ (EPR) regulations, detailing how organisations responsible for packaging must carry out their recycling responsibilities, are being introduced jointly by all four nations.
Much anticipated Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) proposals are being progressed jointly by the UK Government, Welsh Government and Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland.
Scotland is not included as it has been the first mover on DRS in the UK. Existing DRS regulations require people to pay a returnable deposit when buying a drink in certain single-use drinks containers. Implementation of the Scottish regulations have been delayed until August 2023 due to the pandemic.
It’s anticipated that a DRS will be introduced in the rest of the UK in “late 2024 at the earliest”, six years after it was announced. Wales’ Minister for Climate Change, Julie James MS, said that a UK-wide scheme is preferable, however:
…if the UK Government stopped talking about a deposit-return scheme or looked like they're not going to do it, we will absolutely consider doing one in Wales only, but it would clearly be better if we can just do it in a seamless way across the border.
Implications of the Internal Market Act
The UK Internal Market Act 2020 introduces uncertainty about whether devolved administrations are able to introduce bans on products which are permitted to be sold in other parts of the UK.
In short, the Act sets new ‘market access principles’, which presumes that (in general) goods, services and professional qualifications that can be sold or recognised in one part of the UK should be able to be sold or recognised in any other part. Regardless of what the law in that other part of the UK says.
Our recent article, ‘The UK Internal Market Act 2020: what difference is it making?‘ looks in more detail at the market access principles.
The Scottish Government and UK Government reached agreement on where the effects of the Internal Market Act will be excluded from the current Scottish regulations. The UK Government must now introduce a statutory instrument to this effect.
The First Minister says the upcoming Welsh single-use plastic legislation will provide a “practical example” to support the Welsh Government’s ongoing legal challenge to the Internal Market Act, as:
In the current litigation, brought by the Counsel General, the court has indicated it would find it helpful to consider a practical example, in the form of a piece of Senedd legislation, against which it can test the issues under consideration.
Single-use plastic does have its benefits. It contributes to food safety and hygiene, and reduces packaging weight in transit (reducing energy and emissions). However, research suggests our reliance on plastic, in its current form, is unsustainable.
How we break a lifetime of habits in using a product that is everywhere, continues to be a challenge.
Article by Lorna Scurlock, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament