Stood alongside colleagues from Greenpeace and 38 Degrees on the steps of 10 Downing Street, I held onto the giant cardboard cutlery that held our campaign City to Sea slogan: #CutTheCutlery. Our ask was simple, for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to ban the most polluting single-use items, like plastic cutlery – just like they have done in every other country in Europe.
We were there to hand in our petition – which received over 118,000 signatures – to mark the end of the Defra consultation. We had coordinated over 50,000 people to respond to the consultation response. At one point over the Christmas period, we got a slightly panicked phone call from Defra saying they weren’t used to so many responses. So, we summarised it all for them and the findings were clear.
Most respondents backed a ban on all the items being considered – such as cutlery, plates and polystyrene food containers – with support at 96 per cent or above across the board. Crucially, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) said the ban should kick in sooner than the Government’s April 2023 start date, with 35 per cent agreeing with the proposed date. Just 2 per cent said it should be later.
Importantly, 61 per cent also said that bio-based, compostable and biodegradable plastics should also be banned – something that the campaigners have dubbed ‘critical’ for tackling plastic pollution. The wide-scale use of material substitutes such as bioplastics should be regarded with caution. Bioplastics can be harmful to the environment and won’t shift people or companies away from a culture of throwaway packaging.
This all seems like a long time ago now. Boris Johnson was still Prime Minister. And I assumed that when the consultation was closed Defra would work through the data, publish a summary and then get to work on their stated timeline for delivery (something which we already said was too slow). Instead, we’ve had a year of inaction – literally nothing.
I can’t stress this next point enough. The overlapping plastic and climate crises demand action, urgently. Globally, between 8 – 12 m tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean every year and this is likely rising as plastic production from the biggest polluters also keeps on rising. Plastic production has continued to spiral widely out of control (as have the number of Defra ministers supposedly responsible for this!) and we simply can’t wait any longer to introduce these hugely uncontroversial basic first steps.
England now stands as the only country in Europe without legislation in place to ban polluting single-use plastics such as plastic plates, cutlery and expanded and extruded polystyrene cups and food containers. As I’ve said before, this lack of action is a ‘dereliction of Brexit promises’ and also a dereliction of duty to our natural world.
This stands in contrast to the origins of these measures. If we think back to the heady days of our membership in the European Union we will see how our political representatives played a key role in agreeing on the EU Sigle-Use Plastics Directive. And for a short time, it looked like the UK was making a concerted effort to be keeping up with these standards. In October 2020 the UK banned some of the same items like plastic straws.
But alas, that was the last significant shift in this policy space directly looking to reduce the amount of plastic we produce and consume (why all the noise around recycling is a red herring is another article for another day). And that’s why we have once again gone to the media to demand action. And it is why we also need you to join us in our calls.
If you’ve not already done so, contact your MP asking them the very simple question: “Why has this government not banned polluting plastics like plastic cutlery when; 1) it was promised over a year ago and 2) every other country across Europe including Scotland and Wales have managed to do it.”
We were promised a Green Brexit. Instead, we’re spending years chasing Defra to implement the very basic environmental standards that have been in place across Europe now for years. Their foot-dragging approach to tackling plastic pollution stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric of being ‘world leaders’ in tackling plastic pollution. It’s time for us to play catch up with our nearest neighbours and then, and only then, can the conversation move to the wider question of how to tackle plastic pollution in its entirety (you can read some of my thoughts on that in the article I wrote for Green World earlier this year).