As the UK is no longer a Member State of the EU, it is generally not required to transpose the Single-Use Plastics Directive into domestic law. However, under the Northern Ireland Protocol, certain provisions of the Single-Use Plastics Directive must be implemented in Northern Ireland. In summary, these are the requirement to introduce measures to reduce the consumption of plastic cups and food containers, the requirement to restrict the placing on the market (i.e. ban) certain single-use plastic products, product-specific requirements relating mainly to plastic bottles and new labelling requirements for some plastic products. These provisions need to be transposed in Northern Ireland by 1 January 2022 (compared to 1 July 2021 for EU Member States).
As waste is a devolved area of competence, the devolved administrations have taken slightly different approaches to dealing with single-use plastics.
The Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 introduced a minimum 5p charge on all single use carrier bags in England from October 2015 for companies with 250 or more employees. There is a similar charge on single use carrier bags in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The legislation has recently been amended to exclude online grocery delivery bags from 21 March to 21 September 2020 (and from 9 April to 31 December 2020 in Wales and from 2 April 2020 to 31 May 2021 in Scotland), as part of the Government’s response to COVID-19, though this exclusion has not been extended.
A consultation on the proposal to increase the cost per carrier bag to 10p, and to extend the scheme to all retailers, closed on 22 February 2019. On 21 May 2021, the charge was increased to 10p per bag and this now applies to all English retailers, under The Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) (Amendment) Order 2021. In its recent consultation document on reducing single use plastics, the Welsh Government set out that it is building on the success of the single use carrier bag charge, with steps to address the consumption of other types of bag. The charge in Scotland became 10p on 1 April 2021.
Single Use Plastic Items
The draft Environment Bill, which should take effect in Autumn 2021, includes a provision allowing the government (and devolved administrations) to place charges similar to those levied on carrier bags on other single-use plastic items.
Secondary legislation was laid before Parliament in March 2020 banning plastic straws, drinks stirrers and plastic stemmed cotton buds (subject to certain exemptions) in England. Due to COVID-19, Ministers had decided to delay the ban until October 2020 to avoid additional burdens on businesses so it came into force on 1 October 2020 pursuant to The Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020. Subject to a transition period, from that date, the supply or sale of single-use plastic straws and cotton buds to end-users, or of single-use plastic drink stirrers to any customers (i.e. end-users and businesses) is banned in England. The government has confirmed that it intends to consult on potential bans for additional single-use plastic items in the future. In its recent response to a consultation on standards for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics, the government confirmed that it is considering introducing a ban on oxo-degradable plastics (subject to further evidence and consultation).
The Welsh Government has announced that it plans to ban a range of single use plastics from 2021 to match the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive. A consultation issued on 30 July 2020 set out proposals for banning the nine single use plastic items listed in Article 5 of the Single-Use Plastics Directive including straws, stirrers, cotton buds, balloon sticks, plastic cutlery and expanded polystyrene food packaging. Views were also sought on future proposals, including extending the ban to wet wipes. However, there is some uncertainty regarding whether devolved administrations have the requisite legal basis for introducing bans on products which are permitted to be sold in other parts of the UK. The UK Internal Markets Act 2020 provides that, once goods have been made in or imported into one part of the UK, they should be capable of being freely sold within all constituent parts of the country. The Welsh Government launched a legal challenge in January 2021 against these provisions, notably since it intends to bring forward legislation to ban a wider range of single-use plastics compared to England. The judicial review was rejected in April, because specific legislative proposals had yet to be drawn up and therefore the challenge was “in the abstract” and could not proceed.
A ban on plastic-stemmed cotton buds is in force in Scotland as of October 2019. The Scottish Government plans to roll out further measures to meet or exceed the standards set out in the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive by July 2021. The Scottish Government have also consulted on the introduction of market restrictions on certain single-use plastic goods in Scotland, noting its intention to introduce legislation on this issue in 2021. The summary of responses, published in March 2021, confirms that respondents generally expressed strong support for the introduction of market restrictions on these single-use plastics. Responses were used to inform the drafting of the new statutory instrument – the Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products and Oxo-degradable Plastic Products) (Scotland) Regulations 2021. These regulations would ban the supply and manufacture of various single-use plastic products: polystyrene cups and containers; cutlery; plates; stirrers; and all oxo-degradable plastic products. In addition, the supply of straws and balloon sticks to end users would be banned. Although there are certain exemptions, breach of these regulations could give rise to criminal offences punishable by fines. A further consultation from March to April 2021 was held to gather views on the draft regulations. However, the impact of the UK Internal Market Act 2020 on the proposed restrictions remains unclear.