Plastic straws and drink stirrers, and cotton buds with plastic stems will be banned from sale and use in England from next April, the government has confirmed.
The move, which has been in the offing for more than a year, is hoped to vastly reduce the litter and other environmental impacts of the nearly 5bn plastic straws currently used each year in the UK, along with more than 300m plastic stirrers and close to 2bn cotton buds with plastic stems.
Huge numbers of these items, particularly cotton buds, are flushed down toilets or otherwise end up in litter – surveys have recently found waterways across the UK teeming with plastic, putting wildlife at risk.
Alternatives are available, including serving drinks without straws or stirrers, which is preferable, or using paper straws and biodegradable products in place of plastic stirrers and cotton buds. The only exceptions to the new rule will be for people with a medical need or disability, for whom plastic straws and other materials will be available upon request.
The EU is also moving to phase out plastics in various forms.
A government consultation found that more than 80% of respondents supported a ban on the distribution and sale of plastic straws, while nine out of 10 people wanted a ban on drink stirrers, and a similar number supported a ban on plastic-handled cotton buds.
Registered pharmacies will be permitted to sell plastic straws, over the counter or online, but restaurants, pubs and other catering establishments will not be allowed to display plastic straws or provide them automatically.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, said: “Urgent and decisive action is needed to tackle plastic pollution. These items are often used for just a few minutes, but take hundreds of years to break down.”
Campaigners welcomed the government’s move. Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, which campaigns against plastic pollution, said: “Stopping the production and distribution of these single-use plastic menaces will prevent them from polluting beaches nationwide. It’s a really positive and bold step in the right direction against plastic pollution.”
However, the items expected to be banned were only part of the plastic problem, said Emma Priestland, campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “These three items are just a fraction of the single-use nasties that are used for a tiny amount of time before polluting the environment for centuries to come,” she said.
“Ultimately, we need producers to take responsibility for the plastic pollution caused by all their products, whether it’s bags, balloons, packets, containers or otherwise. That’s why we’re campaigning for legislation to cut back on pointless plastic across the board.”