England Is Banning Some Single-Use Plastics. Activists Say It’s a Small Step.

As England announced over the weekend that it would ban several single-use plastic items, including cutlery and plates, environmental advocates greeted the measure with more of a tepid clap than uproarious applause, seeing it as a better-late-than-never measure that leaves more changes needed.

While they were grateful for action, several activists said the move came well after similar measures by England’s neighbors and did not ambitiously address the proliferation of disposable plastic, which ends up in landfills and oceans and takes decades to break down.

“It is a step in the right direction,” said Nina Schrank, a senior campaigner for Greenpeace U.K. “But it is a small step.”

Starting in October, England will ban single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery and some polystyrene cups and food containers. The government said that England uses an estimated 2.7 billion items of single-use cutlery and 721 million single-use plates per year, but that only 10 percent are recycled.

England banned plastic straws, cotton swabs and drink stirrers in 2020. In announcing the new ban on Saturday, government officials said they were looking into further measures, including a ban on plastic items including wet wipes and tobacco filters, or mandatory labeling to help people dispose of such items correctly.

England’s environmental department said in a statement that the government would be “pressing ahead” with a plan for a deposit return initiative for drink containers, and “consistent recycling collections in England.”

Rebecca Pow, an environment minister, said in a statement, “Plastic is a scourge which blights our streets and beautiful countryside, and I am determined that we shift away from a single-use culture.”

Governments across the globe have employed single-use plastic bans as a way of reducing plastic, most commonly focused on products, like straws and bags, that can be made from other material.

Advocates say that the bans have been largely successful in limiting the targeted types of plastic products, but that a more comprehensive approach is needed. And they say England has fallen behind its peers after Brexit severed Britain from Europe.

The European Union approved a ban on single-use plastic items in 2018, which went into effect three years later. England’s neighbors, Scotland and Wales, each banned a similar list of items last year. (Northern Ireland, the fourth constituent country in Britain, has not.)

The United States has not banned any single-use plastic products at the federal level, but some cities and states have their own bans on items, including plastic bags and straws. Some states, such as California, have gone further to reduce single-use plastic items, aiming to phase out single-use packaging that is not recyclable or compostable.

Environmental advocates say England’s coming ban, which does not include plastic takeout containers, does not go far enough.Credit…Tolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Europe’s ban has had mixed results, with some countries showing more progress than others, according to a report by Seas at Risk, a group based in Brussels. The ban eliminated 10 single-use plastics, but did not stop member countries from going further. The European directive also addresses other common forms of single-use plastics, including takeout food containers, that England did not ban.

“If you are only banning some items and overlooking other products, then it is not sufficient,” said Frédérique Mongodin, senior marine litter policy officer at Seas at Risk.

As for the timing of the move? “It’s very late,” she said.

With the European directive underway, activists are looking beyond individual product bans to measures including the promotion of reusable containers.

Ms. Schrank, the Greenpeace official, said many of the largest sources of plastic waste remained untouched, including food and grocery packaging. Snack bags and fruit and vegetable packaging are among the most common items found in plastic waste, she said.

Instead of targeting them individually, she said she would like to see an aggressive government target to reduce single-use plastics by 50 percent.

“We’re being fed little treats here, when the big real questions are being unanswered,” Ms. Schrank said.

Nor is the issue with single-use items limited to plastics. Larissa Copello, consumption and production campaigner for Zero Waste Europe, said replacing single-use plastic with single-use items made of other materials only helped so much.

“The issue of single use is not only about plastic, but single-use paper and single-use glass,” she said. “It’s all about the consumption of products that are only used once and thrown away.”

For activists in Britain, eyes are on what comes next. Steve Hynd, policy manager at City to Sea, an environmental organization based in Bristol, said the ban was welcomed but “these are very much minimum agreed standards.”

“The ban will help England catch up with other countries that already implemented similar bans years ago,” he said. “But for England to be true ‘global leaders’ in tackling plastic pollution like this government claims to be, we need them to go much further.”

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