The new ban on single-use plastic tableware in England explained
Earlier this year the UK Government announced that there will be a ban on single-use plastic tableware in England starting on 1st October 2023. This is part of the government’s efforts to reduce avoidable plastic waste from everyday single-use items.
The new ban covers a range of single-use plastic tableware and utensils as well as balloon sticks and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers (those often used by takeaways).
It means that from October these items will no longer be available to buy from retailers in England and that they can’t be used by businesses, such as restaurants, takeaways and other food outlets. It will become an offence for businesses to supply these items to customers:
Single-use plastic plates, bowls and trays
Single-use plastic cutlery including knives, forks, spoons, sporks and chopsticks
Plastic balloon sticks
Polystyrene cups and containers
Why are these single-use plastic items being banned?
As the impact of plastic pollution on our planet and wildlife has become better understood, many have started to make changes to reduce their plastic waste. Plastic itself isn’t the main problem here - it’s the volume at which we use these items, and we use a lot.
The popularity of single-use plastic items has grown rapidly since the 1950s when mass manufacturing made items so cheap they could be disposed of after a single use. Fast forward to 2023 and in England we use an estimated 2.7 billion items of single-use cutlery and 721 million single-use plates every year (Source: Gov.uk).
The prevalence of single-use items led many of us to believe that plastic was disposable and had little value or impact. Yet the environmental cost of producing and transporting an item to be used just once is high. The natural resources required, along with the associated carbon footprint, means that these items are far from sustainable.
And the problem isn’t just in the production; what happens once the single-use item has been used? Very little single-use plastic is recycled - only an estimated 10%. This is in part due to the accessibility of plastics recycling, the demand for the resulting recycled material and the reliance on the end consumer knowing what to do with an item once used. Until recently little thought was put into what happened to single-use items at end-of-life so in reality most items are destined for incineration or landfill. But when we throw something away it isn’t gone. It could take up to 450 years for a plastic cup to decompose in landfill and what’s left behind is toxic (Source: WWF.org.au).
Reason for single-use plastics legislation
England’s new legislation will follow similar bans already in place around the world. In 2020 France became the first country to ban single-use plastic plates, cups and utensils (Source: Washingtonpost.com). Since then the rest of the EU has followed along with many other governments. Scotland was the first nation within the UK to ban these items in 2022.
The need for legislation may perhaps seem heavy handed. While many businesses have already made changes to cut their use of plastics, bringing in legislation is the quickest way to have a big impact on plastic waste. We’ve seen this before with the results from other single-use plastic bans.
In England the government has already banned or restricted single-use plastic bags, straws, cotton buds, stirrers and microbeads in beauty products all in an effort to reduce plastic pollution. A new tax has been introduced on plastic packaging which does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic.
Since the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge in 2015 (now 10p), the usage of single-use plastic bags by the main supermarkets chains has dropped by 97% (source: Gov.uk). It has led to a change in consumer behaviour with more people choosing to reuse bags rather than getting a new bag each time they shop. The ban has contributed to a greater awareness of plastic pollution and a growing expectation of access to recycling. As a result there are now more soft plastics collection points at larger supermarkets.
Bans have been shown to have a rapid impact on environmental pollution too. In 2020 a ban on plastic-stemmed cotton buds was introduced. The following year The Great British Beach Clean found the number of plastic-stemmed cotton buds picked up on our beaches had fallen by more than half (Source: mcsuk.org).
Legislation does force change upon businesses. It requires businesses to consider their use of materials and the need to find more sustainable alternatives. Often the more ‘eco’ option is more expensive and for some businesses this ban will add additional cost at a time when many are already under financial pressure. However legislation does help remove some of the burden from the end consumer; it can be difficult to navigate purchasing decisions when trying to avoid unnecessary plastic.
Which items are not included in the new ban?
This new legislation won’t eradicate all plastic from disposable tableware.
The proposed ban does not include single-use cups made from plastic, except polystyrene. The existing EU ban does include single-use plastic cups used for beverages however the Scottish ban does not, so it's likely that the government aims to have a common ban across the countries within the UK. (Sources: European Commission & Gov.scot)
Food packaging, such as the plastic trays used for pre-packaged food in supermarkets, will also not be banned under this new legislation.
And to be clear, this isn’t a ban on all single-use tableware. Single-use tableware will still be available to buy. Items like paper plates, such as those commonly found at kids parties or BBQs, aren’t included in the ban despite many having a laminated plastic coating.
If you already have single-use plastic tableware at home, perhaps leftover from a party, you can still use these items after the ban comes into effect. It would be wasteful to just throw them away unused. But when you are done with them consider if the items can be recycled locally and, if not, make sure they go in the general waste.
What about single-use items made from bioplastics?
Bioplastics are made from organic materials like corn starch and sugar cane. This is different to regular plastic which is made from oil, which is a fossil fuel. Bioplastics are sometimes referred to as bio-based, biodegradable or compostable plastics or marked with ‘PLA’.
They are often promoted as a greener alternative to regular plastic and certainly once they decompose they don’t leave behind the harmful toxins found in oil-based plastics.
However this greener plastic will be included in the upcoming ban and you won’t be able to buy single-use tableware made from bioplastics (Source: Gov.uk). The reasoning for this is due to the time and conditions required for these bioplastics to break down as until they have fully decomposed they can still act as plastic in the environment endangering wildlife.
So what are the alternatives?
When single-use plastic plates, bowls and cutlery disappear from shelves in October, what are the alternatives?
Instead of plastic there is already single-use tableware available made from natural materials including wood, paper, cardboard, bamboo and even palm leaves. These are all biodegradable and are less of a danger to wildlife should they ever become litter. When buying these items check that the materials come from sustainable sources. For wood and paper this means that they should be FSC certified.
Once used tableware made from natural material can sometimes be composted at home or may be able to go in your food waste collection (check the labelling on the packaging) but note that cardboard contaminated by food waste can not go into your recycling bin.
However in reality simply replacing single-use plastic items for single-use items made from another material is not enough. We need to start attributing real value to all resources we take from our planet and that includes what we eat our cake off.
Some of the alternatives to plastic have a higher carbon footprint meaning that while switching away from plastic will help to stem the flow of plastic pollution these products aren’t going to help us to tackle the wider climate crisis. For example, paper bags are often seen as the more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bags. Yet manufacturing a paper bag requires approximately 4 times as much water as making a plastic one and produces 3.1 times more greenhouse gas emissions (Source: Carbonpositiveaustralia.org.au).
For a more sustainable future we must break our single-use habit and switch to reusables wherever possible.
What’s the deal with reusables?
Upstream found that “reusable food service ware beats single-use alternatives through every environmental measure (climate, water, land use, waste, pollution, etc.)”.
It is true that the initial production of a reusable item is more costly than that of a single-use one. Due to its designed purpose reusable tableware is more robust requiring more materials to make increasing their carbon footprint. But with each reuse there is always a break-even point where they will start to cost less than the alternative disposable. This is true for the monetary cost too; reusables are more expensive to buy, but use them enough and they will work out cheaper per use.
One of the main reasons single-use tableware is so prevalent is our apparent collective aversion to doing the washing up. As someone who runs a local party kit and washed 9,330 reusable tableware items in 2022, I can promise you that the washing up really isn’t that bad!
For an even greener option, borrowing what we need rather than buying also makes reusable tableware the most sustainable solution. This is one of the reasons why our party kits are such a simple yet effective idea. When a party kit of reusable tableware is borrowed for a party it helps avoid single-use items that might otherwise have been purchased and then thrown away. But what borrowing a party kit also does is help to lower the environmental cost of that reusable tableware by increasing the frequency it is used over its lifetime.
While the new ban on single-use plastic tableware should be celebrated, there is still some way to go to cut out unnecessary single-use plastic. But more than that, we need real-world solutions to our disposable culture.
One thing that hasn’t been made clear in the documentation published so far is the government's definition of ‘reusable’. What makes a plastic fork reusable or disposable shouldn’t be as simple as what’s printed on the label. Following the introduction of a similar ban in Queensland Australia, environment groups accused a major retailer of simply rebranding disposable tableware as reusable (Source: theage.com.au). This is obviously an issue as it fails to tackle the problem the ban is trying to address.
Without a clear criteria for reusable tableware there is a risk this will happen here too. Certainly the ‘reusable’ tableware items popping up in local supermarket party aisles near me don't look durable enough for prolonged use and definitely won't be going in any of my party kits. To be truly reusable they need to be useful for at least enough time to offset the increased carbon footprint from their production, but really we need things that can be useful many hundreds of times, not just a few.
Breaking our single-use habits is not going to be easy and it asks businesses and consumers to accept changes that not everyone will like. But we must change if we want to save our planet.