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England’s ban on single-use plastic is a display of tokenism

By Marzana Tasnim

Thérèse Coffey’s ban of select single-use plastic is politically performative, and will do very little to help the environment.

When I learnt that England was due to ban select single-use plastic items by the end of the year, I thought it was wonderful news. However, the more I read, the less promising it sounded. The ban proposed by Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey will become effective in October 2023, restricting the usage of plastic cutlery, plates and polystyrene cups in takeaway outlets. Unfortunately, the ban only extends to the hospitality industry and does not cover single-use plastic in shops. Even with this limitation, the ban is estimated to limit the production of around 1.1bn plastic plates and 4.25bn cutlery items in England. This is the latest step in the fight against plastic – litter generated from takeaway food and drink dominates a large proportion of waste that ends up in the ocean. Nevertheless, the ban is incomprehensive and will not do much for the sea creatures whose gardens have been infiltrated with plastic invaders for a long time.

England, a nation which had initially taken the global lead in the fight against climate change with the Climate Change Act of 2008, is late to this development- neighbouring Scotland and Wales already have similar legislation in place. The ban is clearly unfit for purpose. It fails to account for the packaging industry, which, according to a Greenpeace survey, wastes 100bn pieces of plastic in the UK every year. The same study found that more than 80% of plastic waste comes from food and drink packaging. Coffey’s ban does not apply to the plastic used in packaging. This prompts the question: is this latest stance on plastic reduction merely a case of environmental tokenism?

Not only did the new legislation take a painfully long time to come to fruition, its limited scope seems suspiciously tokenistic. It fails to mention supply-chain issues regarding plastic, which should have been halted by imposing restrictions on the petrochemical industries that are responsible for producing raw materials. The ban also does not offer specific guidelines for businesses that must replace plastic by October. The new restriction on plastic as such feels like a blow to small businesses. Furthermore, Coffey has failed to offer guidelines for individual consumers on how to prepare for the transition, a huge aspect of tackling the multifaceted problem of plastic waste. Consumers will always be inclined towards using what is most convenient: plastic. 

But, even though changes in individual habits are great, they can’t alone change a planet’s decades-old reliance on a pollutant which once swept us off our feet. Real sustainable change can only happen when there is a top-down approach from the policy makers, accompanied by compliance of mass corporations, coupled with a willingness to adopt better practices from a micro level. Coffey’s plans do not even attempt to begin this. 

But are other countries doing it better? In 2019, a formal directive was passed by the European Parliament which banned all single-use plastic in member states. Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are doing a good job at enacting plastic control policies and implementing them at multiple stakeholder levels. Denmark was one of the first countries to impose a tax on plastic bags in 1993. In 2021, England introduced similar legislation where consumers would be required to pay 10 pence for single-use plastic carrier bags. Last year, Sweden launched a national action plan to reduce plastic pollution with concrete plans. The report laid out practical advice for businesses, organisations and individuals while providing an all-encompassing image of the plastic problem – something it seems the latest British legislation failed to do.  

Bans, as radical as they can seem to be, do not always work. In 2002, Bangladesh was one of the first countries to introduce a ban on plastic bags as a practical solution to avoid clogging drainage systems. However, despite the initial impressive development, due to governmental negligence, it wasn’t long before the plan (and the ban) bit the dust. 

It is clear to see that the new legislation is not thought through, and is a display of environmental tokenism – it is intended to look good, not to serve a purpose. For Coffey’s plan to work, a more comprehensive set of guidelines must be introduced, to ensure powerful plastic producers are held accountable. Furthermore, a detailed plan should be outlined that guides small businesses and individual consumers towards adopting environmentally conscious practices. 


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