On Monday, the United Kingdom laid out its plan to halt the sale and distribution of plastic straws and stirrers, as well as plastic-stemmed cotton swabs, by 2020. The actual ban would not go into effect until sometime between October 2019 and October 2020, with the ultimate date subject to findings from an official consultation.
That consultation is being led by Michael Gove, the U.K. Secretary of Environment, who is currently soliciting surveys from citizens on the subject.
The government has already outlined some exceptions to the new rule. Pharmacies will still be allowed to sell plastic straws, while restaurants and bars will be permitted to stock straws for use upon request. According to a press release, these policies are designed to accommodate "those who need straws for medical and accessibility reasons."
Currently, England uses an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers, and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton swabs each year. This single-use plastic often ends up in the ocean and nearby waterways, as government research demonstrates. Plastic or polystyrene pieces were the number one item found in the 2017 Great British Beach Clean, followed by packets, glass, and cigarette buds.
Using evidence from Ireland, the U.K. government also estimated that 10 percent of plastic-stemmed cotton swabs (i.e. Q-Tips, but with plastic rods) are flushed down toilets. That means roughly 8.1 percent end up in the marine environment, where they pose a threat to native species.
"Our precious oceans and the wildlife within need urgent protection from the devastation throw-away plastic items can cause," Gove said in the press release.
"I commend retailers, bars, and restaurants that have already committed to removing plastic straws and stirrers. But we recognize 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."
Earlier this year, the U.K. government implemented a ban on microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic often featured in facial scrubs, shower gels, and toothpastes. Gove held up this ban as an example of his country’s commitment to the environment, pointing also to the 5p charge levied on plastic bags since 2015.
According to Gove, this charge has taken over 15 billion plastic bags out of circulation. Their distribution in major supermarkets has dropped by 86 percent over the past three years.
"Our society’s addiction to throwaway plastic is fueling a global environmental crisis that must be tackled," Sam Chetan Welsh, Greenpeace U.K.’s political advisor, said in the release.
"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. But this should be just the start. If we are to protect our oceans from the scourge of plastic, the flow of waste needs to be cut off at the tap. And that means the companies producing and selling all this packaging must take responsibility for it and cut down the amount of plastic ending up in our shopping baskets."
The consultation period, when U.K. residents can submit surveys or comment on the proposed ban, will last for six weeks. They can access the form between now and Dec. 3 via this online page.
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