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Why are single-use plastics being banned?

Estimates indicate that 2.7 billion items of single-use cutlery (mostly made from plastic) and 721 million single-use plates are used in England every year. However, only 10% are recycled after use. Further, in 2020, single-use plastic cutlery was among the 15 most littered items in England.

Plastic is a major contributor to environmental pollution as it takes hundreds of years to degrade. Plastic also seriously damages and pollutes oceans, rivers, and land, and contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases.

By banning single-use plastics, the government hopes that it will reduce plastic waste and littering in England by reducing the number of plastic items that are used and then thrown away.

The move to ban single-use plastic in England also brings England in line with Scotland and Wales, where similar laws were introduced in 2022 and in 2023, respectively.

When does the single-use plastics ban apply?

The single-use plastics ban applies to particular types of sales and particular types of plastics:

What type of sales does the ban apply to?

The ban applies to various types of sales, including:

  • online sales and supply

  • over-the-counter (ie in-store) sales and supply

  • items from a business’ new and existing stock

  • all types of single-use plastic (including biodegradable, compostable, and recycled plastics)

  • any items made wholly or partly from plastic (eg if their coating or lining is made from plastic)

Which plastics are banned?

The ban on single-use plastics will cover single-use plastic:

  • plates

  • trays

  • bowls

  • cutlery

  • balloon sticks

  • polystyrene cups and food containers, both expanded and extruded, of certain types 

For the purposes of the ban, ‘single use’ means that an item is meant to be used only once for its original purpose.

What are the exceptions to the ban?

The ban does not apply to single-use plastic plates, bowls and trays if:

  • they are being supplied to another business, or

  • the items are used as packaging (ie for food that’s pre-filled, shelf-ready, or filled at the point of sale)

For example, ready meals packaged in a tray, trays used to deliver food, or plates filled at the counter of a takeaway are exempt.

The ban does not apply to food and drink in polystyrene containers if the food or drink needs further preparation before being consumed. For example, when water needs to be added to instant noodles or a meal needs heating up to make it edible.

Who does the ban apply to?

The ban on single-use plastic applies to all businesses. This means that no business may supply single-use plastics that are banned, as set out above. 

Retailers, food vendors (including takeaway businesses) and the wider hospitality industry are most affected by the ban.

It is important to note that businesses will still be able to use single-use plastics if any of the exceptions to the ban apply. For example, stores, supermarkets and manufacturers will be able to use single-use polystyrene containers for any food or drinks that require further preparation after being bought. Similarly, takeaways selling pre-packaged food (ie food provided in packaging by another business) are exempt.

What does the ban mean for my business?

If you operate a business that sells food to customers (eg a restaurant, cafe, takeaway business or food truck), you will likely be affected by the ban. This means that you need to use alternatives to any plastic plates, cutlery, trays, bowls or polystyrene containers that you use.

Alternative solutions you may consider include:

  • using biodegradable alternatives (eg takeaway containers or paper plates made from bamboo or cardboard)

  • swapping plastic cutlery for metal cutlery for in-house guests

  • encouraging customers to bring their own reusable containers and cutlery

  • offering to refill customers’ water bottles or travel cups

  • offering a discount or incentive to people who bring their own reusable containers

You can find some tips on alternatives to single-use plastics on the Refill website. Refill is a campaign that aims to reduce plastic waste.

Be aware that alternatives to single-use plastic may be more costly, so it is essential that you carefully plan and budget. You may, for example, have to raise your prices. If you do, it is a good idea to let customers know in advance, for example, by sending a marketing email explaining how and why your prices will increase. It’s a good idea to include information about the environmental benefits motivating the changes, to help get customers’ support.

You may also be subject to inspection and, if found to be in breach of the ban, may be subject to fines (more on this below).

How is the ban enforced?

The ban is enforced by local authorities, who will carry out inspections to ensure the ban is complied with. Inspectors are able to:

  • visit shops and stores

  • make purchases to test whether single-use plastics are being used

  • speak to members of staff

  • ask to see business records (eg purchase orders for alternative takeaway containers)

If a business is found not to be complying with the ban, it can be ordered to cover the cost of the investigation. Complaints about a business can also be made to Trading Standards.

Can I appeal a fine?

If you have wrongly been fined after an inspection, you have 28 days to make an appeal. The letter imposing your fine should provide relevant details on how to make such an appeal.

An appeal may be successful if you can show that you did everything you could reasonably do to avoid breaking the ban.

For more information on making your business sustainable, read How to make your business environmentally sustainable and How to create an environmentally sustainable workplace.

To learn more about the ban on single-use plastics, read the government’s guidance. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to Ask a lawyer.

Rebecca Neumann
Rebecca Neumann
Senior Acquisition Manager at Rocket Lawyer UK

Rebecca is the Senior Acquisition Manager at Rocket Lawyer UK. She graduated from Queen Mary University of Laws with a law degree and has completed her LPC at the University of Laws.

She is passionate about intellectual property and private client law, and strongly believes that legal services should be affordable and accessible to all.

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