England bans sale of single-use plastics

As of the start of October, England has banned the sale and distribution of single-use plastic items, such as cutlery, polystyrene cups, and balloon sticks. The ban extends to plastic cutlery, bowls, trays, and plates made from polystyrene that are distributed by eateries, including restaurants, cafes, takeaways, and catering firms. Looking ahead, the country may extend this ban to supermarkets by 2024.

Companies that manufacture single-use plastic plates, trays, and bowls used in pre-packaged food items will now face additional charges. These charges are aimed at funding the recycling of these items. These mandates will be enforced through alterations to the extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme tailored for the packaging sector.

The staggering statistics

Data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) paints a concerning picture of the nation’s plastic consumption. Every year, England consumes 2.7 billion items of single-use cutlery, a vast majority of which are plastic. Additionally, 721 million single-use plates are used annually. A mere 10% of these items are recycled. To visualise the magnitude of the problem, if we were to line up 2.7 billion pieces of 15cm cutlery, they would encircle the globe over eight and a half times.

Over the past three decades, our plastic consumption has quadrupled, as highlighted by the OECD. This alarming increase is primarily attributed to packaging, consumer goods, and textiles. Despite the massive consumption, our recycling and reuse efforts have been minimal. A whopping 80% of plastic waste still remains outside of recycling initiatives.

Moreover, plastic recycling technology is still undergoing refinement. A notable example is Lego’s recent announcement. The company stated that they are moving away from using recycled bottles to produce their iconic toy bricks. The reason? The recycling process actually emits more CO₂ than the amount saved.

Many single-use food and takeaway containers are not covered by the ban, and one of the top five items found on UK beach cleans is drinks-related litter. While other countries have been operating successful deposit return systems for decades, following a string of delays, England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to wait until 2025

A glimmer of hope and market opportunities

Yet, amidst these challenges, a significant market opportunity emerges. The environmental necessity to recycle plastic is clearer than ever. According to McKinsey, to meet company targets, there will be a need for an annual supply of 40 million tonnes of recycled resins. This translates to an investment of $100 billion. The silver lining is that with a fully developed and scaled recycling system, recycled plastic could be produced at a lower cost than new plastic.

While the ban marks progress, it’s worth noting that the government had previously announced a delay in packaging recycling reforms. Initially set for October 2024, these reforms will now be rolled out in October 2025. Additionally, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has recently announced a raft of climate policy U-turns.

While England takes commendable steps towards curbing plastic waste, the journey towards a sustainable future is intricate and filled with challenges. It demands collaboration, investment, and commitment from all sectors of society.

Sign up for weekly insights, including SI Engage and industry news