Defra defends UK’s single-use plastic approach

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has defended the UK’s record on plastic pollution and says it is considering whether to ban certain single-use plastic products.

On 20 July, a coalition of 21 environmental organisations including Greenpeace, City to Sea, Keep Britain Tidy and Friends of the Earth wrote an open letter to environment minister Rebecca Pow, accusing the UK of falling behind the rest of Europe in meeting the minimum standards set across the EU to tackle plastic pollution.

Defra is currently assessing whether there were items for which a ban would be a “suitable and proportionate measure”

The open letter’s signatories called on the UK government to legislate to match the ban of items outlined in Article 5 of the EU’s Single-Use Plastic (SUP) Directive “at the very least”.

Yesterday, a spokesperson for Defra told letsrecycle.com in response that the UK was a “global leader in tackling plastic pollution”.

The spokesperson said Defra was currently assessing whether there were items for which a ban would be a “suitable and proportionate measure”. They said they were seeking powers in the Environment Bill which would allow the government to tackle “problematic items” through a variety of policy measures, including charges for single-use plastic items.

They added that Defra would “continue to review the latest evidence” on problematic products and materials to take a “systematic approach” to reducing the use of unnecessary single-use plastic products, including problematic packaging materials.

SUP Directive

Under the EU’s SUP Directive, countries across Europe are legislating to ban items made from single-use plastic, including cutlery, plates and polystyrene food containers (see letsrecycle.com story).

The EU defines single-use plastic products as items that are used once or for a short period of time before being thrown away (picture: Shutterstock)

Because the SUP Directive was not transposed into UK law before the end of the Brexit transitional period last year, the UK is not required to implement its requirements. While Defra has bans in place for some items such as stirrers and cotton buds, its restrictions do not go as far as the SUP Directive.

There is also a variety of approaches proposed by the devolved as to how they plan to legislate on single-use plastic (see letsrecycle.com story). Northern Ireland is compelled under the Northern Ireland Protocol to transpose “certain articles” of the Directive by 2022, while Scotland and Wales have proposed bans in their own domestic markets.

Single-use plastic pollution

The open letter’s signatories say the government “is not only failing to take the lead on tackling plastics but is falling behind our European neighbours and devolved nations within the UK” if it fails to ban single-use items such as plastic plates and cutlery.

“The government claims to be a leader in tackling plastic pollution yet is falling behind in the most basic of measures”

Nina Schrank, Greenpeace

Research published in the journal Nature Sustainability and funded by the BBVA Foundation and Spanish science ministry found that food containers and food wrappers were two of the four most widespread plastic items polluting rivers, beaches and oceans, together with bottles and bags.

Nina Schrank, senior campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “Our single-use, throwaway society is causing an environmental catastrophe on a global scale.

“The government claims to be a leader in tackling plastic pollution yet is falling behind in the most basic of measures. They need to match EU legislation in banning some of the most harmful single-use plastics, at the very least.

“At the same time, businesses and food outlets need to step up and expand the refillable and reusable options that people are calling for. Turning away from our disposable culture and embracing reusability is how we can all do our bit to protect the natural world from plastic pollution.”

‘Global leader’

However, the Defra spokesperson defended the government’s approach to single-use plastic pollution, pointing to 2020’s ban on straws, stirrers and cotton buds (see letsrecycle.com story).

The Defra spokesperson pointed to 2020’s ban on straws as an example of the UK being a “global leader” in tackling plastic pollution

The spokesperson told letsrecycle.com: “We have banned both microbeads in rinse-off personal care products and the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and our carrier bag charge has cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets.

“Our landmark Environment Bill will give ministers the power to introduce deposit return schemes for plastic drinks containers and make companies more responsible for the packaging they produce, incentivising them to use more recyclable materials and to meet higher recycling targets.

“The Bill will also make it easier for ministers to place charges on single-use plastic items that threaten our ecosystems, and we are currently exploring options for which items to target next.”

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