The littering and landfill of single use plastic can cause long term environmental damage. Plastic waste management is a devolved subject and so there are different proposals across the UK to ban different specific items.

Some restrictions on these items have already been introduced, with others to follow in the coming months. The EU has recently put in place legislative restrictions on single use plastic items.

What is being banned, where and when is a complex question, and whether differing restrictions can work across the UK has no simple answer.

This Insight looks at the restrictions across the UK and EU, legal complications linked to market access, and possible future bans on plastic products.

What is being restricted, where and when?

The term “restriction” can encompass a ban on the supply (provision or sale) and/or a ban on manufacturing. These restrictions are often accompanied by specified exemptions, for example, to cater for medical needs.

The table below sets out existing and proposed restrictions in each UK nation and in the EU, showing what these items are, what each restriction is and when it came or will come into force.

Source for England, Source for Northern Ireland, Source for Wales, Source for Scotland, Source for EU
Item England Northern Ireland Wales Scotland EU
Plastic drink stirrers Existing ban on supply (from October 2020) No proposals Proposed ban (no date set) Ban on supply and manufacture to come into force from 1 June 2022 Existing restriction on supply in Member States (from July 2021)
Plastic stemmed cotton buds Existing ban on supply (from October 2020) No proposals Proposed ban (no date set) Existing ban on manufacture and supply (from October 2019) Existing restriction on supply in Member States (from July 2021)
Plastic drinking straws Existing ban on supply (from October 2020) No proposals Proposed ban (no date set) Ban on supply to come into force from 1 June 2022 Existing restriction on supply in Member States (from July 2021)
Disposable plastic plates Proposed ban on supply (no date set) No proposals Proposed ban (no date set) Ban on supply and manufacture to come into force from 1 June 2022 Existing restriction on supply in Member States (from July 2021)
Single-use plastic cutlery Proposed ban on supply (no date set) No proposals Proposed ban (no date set) Ban on supply and manufacture to come into force from 1 June 2022 Existing restriction on supply in Member States (from July 2021)
Balloon sticks Proposed ban on supply (no date set) No proposals Proposed ban (no date set) Ban on supply to come into force from 1 June 2022 Existing restriction on supply in Member States (from July 2021)
Expanded polystyrene containers (eg, takeaway food and drink containers) Proposed ban on supply (no date set) Proposals being consulted on to either: ban; introduce a levy on; or introduce voluntary initiatives Proposed ban (no date set) Ban on supply and manufacture to come into force from 1 June 2022 Existing restriction on supply in Member States (from July 2021)
Oxo-degradable products (a material where there is ongoing debate and research about how quickly and effectively it degrades to become harmless) No final decision taken; research ongoing No proposals Proposed ban (no date set) No final decision taken; research ongoing Existing restriction on supply in Member States (from July 2021)

What’s the relationship between UK and EU restrictions?

Since leaving the EU, the Governments in both Wales and Scotland have chosen to link their restrictions to follow those introduced by the EU. The UK Government’s proposed restrictions for England are similar to the EU’s, but not linked explicitly.

The EU’s restrictions on single use plastic items have been added to the (amended) Northern Ireland Protocol to the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement. This means that these EU restrictions apply in the UK in respect of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland was given an extended transition date to implement these provisions by 1 January 2022, which has not been met. The Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has argued that implementing these restrictions is an obligation for the UK Government to deliver.

At the time of writing, neither the UK Government nor the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland have put forward proposals to follow the EU’s provisions in respect of Northern Ireland.

Can differing restrictions work across the UK?

The Internal Market Act 2020, passed by the UK Parliament, established a principle of mutual recognition for goods. This means goods that have been produced or imported into one part of the UK, and which can be sold or supplied there without contravening any restrictions, can be sold in any other part of the UK, free from any restrictions which would otherwise apply. Any regulations banning the supply of single use plastic items would be subject to this principle.

The Scottish Green Party has expressed concern that the practical impact of the Act will undermine effort to restrict items in one part of the UK that have not been restricted in another. Cardiff university senior law lecturer, Dr Richard Caddell, said it, “places a ceiling on the ecological ambitions” of the devolved Governments.

The 2020 UK Government policy paper, Goods market access: approach to restrictions and bans set out how any single use plastic ban would operate across the UK:

Devolved administrations could introduce a ban on the sale of a particular good, but the ban would only cover local products produced in that part of the UK (or those imported into that territory from outside the UK). Devolved administrations could not enforce that ban against sellers of goods produced in, or imported into, other parts of the UK.

Are more plastic items likely to be restricted?

The UK Government has recently sought views on how to reduce the use of wet wipes, tobacco filters, sachets, and other single-use cups. The Welsh Government intends to consider interventions on wet wipes and equivalent products. The Scottish Government has previously sought views on placing market restrictions on wet wipes and plastic tampon applicators. It’s not yet clear whether or when any further restrictions on these items will be put in place.

Certain academics and consultants have cautioned that in some cases, banning plastic items can lead to unintended consequences, such as the items being replaced by more polluting alternatives. Some campaigns are now focusing on reducing disposable items more widely, not just those made from plastic.

Further reading

Restrictions on single use plastic items are just one of several measures being considered across the UK to reduce plastic waste. For further information see Library briefing, Plastic Waste.


About the author: Louise Smith is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in the environment.

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

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