(Mar. 13, 2020) As part of its 25 Year Environment Plan, the government of England and Wales introduced draft Regulations, known as the Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020, on March 3, 2020. The draft Regulations would ban the supply of certain single-use plastics, including straws, cotton swabs (such as Q-tips), and coffee stirrers to end users across England and Wales. It is anticipated that the draft Regulations would enter into force in April 2020, and the government would be required to assess the impact of them one year after they enter into force.
The aim of the draft Regulations is to reduce the impact on the environment of single-use plastics. The government estimates that over 4.5 billion plastic straws, 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton swabs, and 316 million plastic stirrers are used in England each year. A significant number of these items end up in waterways and oceans.
Provisions of the Draft Regulations
Regulation 14 of the draft Regulations provides that it is an offense to supply single-use plastic stirrers to end users. Regulation 10 prohibits the supply of single-use plastic stemmed cotton swabs to end users, although there is an exemption for the use of these products for medical, forensic, or scientific purposes. Regulation 4 also provides that it is an offense to supply straws or drink products with a single-use plastic straw attached to the packaging to end users, although there are a number of exemptions to ensure that single-use plastic straws remain available for accessibility or medical purposes.
If approved, Regulations 5 through 9 contain a number of exemptions that apply to single-use plastic straws. A general exemption for single-use plastic straws would apply to their use in schools, prisons, care homes, and child care centers. The use of single-use plastic straws that are “relevant devices” and used for medical purposes or by a health professional for medical purposes would also be exempt under the draft Regulations. Registered pharmacies could also supply plastic straws if they are not visible or advertised to customers. Catering establishments, such as restaurants and bars, could also provide straws upon request but could not offer them to customers or place them in an area that is visible or accessible to customers.
The draft Regulations would be enforced by local authorities, known as the “regulator,” which would have the power of entry to investigate whether an offense had been committed. The regulator would also be required to publish information about any enforcement action they have taken, along with guidance.
Breach of the draft Regulations would be an offense, punishable with a fine. The regulator would also have a range of civil sanctions that could be used, detailed in the schedule to the draft Regulations, and include
- variable monetary penalties, the amount of which would be determined by the regulator;
- compliance notices, which would require the offending party to take specified steps within a certain period of time to comply with the draft Regulations;
- stop notices, which would prohibit a person from carrying out any activity specified in the notice until they had met steps specified in the notice and received a completion certificate; or
- enforcement undertakings, which are written statements by a person detailing the action they must take to ensure the offense does not continue or occur again. These undertakings must specify actions, including the payment of money, to benefit persons affected by the offense, along with actions to restore the environment to the state it was in before it was damaged or destroyed by the offense.
The draft Regulations establish an appeals process against any action taken against an offender. Compensation could be awarded for any losses caused as a result of a stop notice if the regulator later withdrew or amended the notice because the decision to serve the notice, or any step related to it, was unreasonable. Compensation could also be awarded if the individual subject to the notice successfully appealed the notice to the first tier tribunal.
The draft Regulations also provide for the recovery by regulators of the costs of enforcement from offenders.
Public Support for the Ban and Past Measures to Reduce Plastic Waste
A public consultation in late 2018 revealed a high level of interest in the issue of plastic waste, along with widespread support for a ban on single-use plastics, with over 80% of respondents agreeing to all the proposed measures now contained in the draft Regulations. The draft Regulations are just one of a number of legislative steps the government has taken to eliminate avoidable plastic waste. Other measures include a ban on microbeads in December 2017, and a 5-pence (about US$0.07) charge on single-use plastic bags in large grocery stores in 2015. The charge on plastic bags led to a drop in the use of these items by 86% from the year 2014 to the year 2016–17, and retailers that voluntarily provided information about how the funds from the charges were used donated over £65.4 million (approximately US$84 million) to charitable causes in the year 2016–17.