Although plastic waste from discarded face masks and gloves may well supersede the progress which was hoped to have been achieved by banning plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, the Single-Use Plastic ban is a reminder of what can be accomplished when united in cause.
You will be forgiven for missing the announcement earlier this month, but the Single-Use Plastic ban on items such as straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds came into force in England on the 1st of October. The ban comes as a victory as it was delayed by six months during the height of the pandemic in April.
According to the UK Government, the ban hopes to eliminate the 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic stemmed cotton buds from entering our waste stream and the natural environment. As Environment Secretary George Eustice notes: “The ban on straws, stirrers and cotton buds is just the next step in our battle against plastic pollution and our pledge to protect our ocean and the environment for future generations.” The ban assigns responsibility to businesses who are no longer allowed to sell or supply these items to customers, while local authorities are tasked with setting and administering fines to those in breach.
Yet the ban comes at a time just when the need for some single-use items have become increasingly widespread. Face masks, gloves, takeaways and home deliveries have all significantly added to our plastic waste during the pandemic. In London, and in many cities around the world, it is now mandatory to wear face masks in all public places. According to a study published in the Journal for Environmental Science and Technology, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used on a monthly basis globally. Although the perceived utility of one single use plastic item supersedes the other, safety over convenience, it remains questionable whether this pick and mix strategy will prove fruitful long-term. Furthermore, there is a growing criticism that the items in question only make up a fraction of the total amount of plastic waste which flows into the ocean every year, with some estimates suggesting just 0.025% for straws.
Irrespective of these qualms, a small triumph can be found in what the ban stirred in anticipation. The rejection of the plastic straw instantly hit home for consumers and companies such as McDonalds, Wetherspoons and Waitrose who proceeded with the eradication of plastic straws long before the ban came into force. Innovations were made as companies became creative and experimented with new materials. Reusable steel, bamboo, or degradable options such as papaya leaf, seaweed, pasta and compressed paper became the material of choice. Our perceptions and behaviours also changed. Plastic straws became frowned upon, and we re-evaluated their purpose as they were no longer mindlessly placed in our glasses or takeaway cups.
Although it will be difficult to speculate just how effective the policy will be, or whether the material innovations are really more environmentally friendly than plastic, the momentum and unity it created is something to applaud these days. For in the end, every-day life without the plastic straw was strangely similar to how it was before.