This new ban - on a variety of single-use plastic items, including plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers - follows the ban on plastic drinking straws, stirrers, cotton buds, and microbeads (in beauty products) introduced in October 2020 and the move to increase the cost of single-use carrier bags from 5p to 10p ( and widen the scope to all stores – not just those with 250 or more employees) in 2021.
Targeting what is a very problematic and enduring waste stream does make sense, most people are very aware of the issues around microplastics, but how does it sit alongside our wider waste strategy?
The announcement does fit in with the 25-year environment plan and the aims to “minimise waste, reuse materials as much as we can and manage materials at the end of their life, to minimise the impact on the environment, which include:
- Working towards our ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050;
- Working toward a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042;
- Meeting all existing waste targets – including those on landfill, reuse, and recycling – and developing ambitious new future targets and milestones;
- Seeking to eliminate waste crime and illegal waste sites over the lifetime of this plan, prioritising those of highest risk;
- Delivering a substantial reduction in litter and littering behaviour; and
- Significantly reducing and where possible preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution – in particular material that came originally from land.
England does though seem to be lagging behind the rest of the UK with respect to single-use plastic, as Wales and Scotland moved on the subject last year. Eliminating waste streams is top of the hierarchy and has the biggest impact, but we need to be more radical, and more quickly if we are to have a really meaningful effect. Updated in May 2022, Defra highlights the current state of waste in the UK, this includes:
- The UK generated 222.2 million tonnes of total waste in 2018. England produces approx. 84% of this total;
- The Waste from Households (WfH) recycling rates decreased in all areas of the UK in 2020 except Wales (England 44%, Scotland 41%, Northern Ireland 49% and Wales 56%);
- 9 million tonnes of commercial and industrial (C&I) waste was generated by the UK in 2018; and
- Rates of packaging waste recycling in 2021 indicate the figure is similar to that for 2020 at around 63%.
By way of comparison and illustration, if the estimated 5,000,000 tonnes (UK Parliament figure, March 2022) of plastic used each year in the UK (half of which is packaging (not cutlery and plates)) was all removed from the waste stream - while of course a great thing in itself, it would account for less than 3% of our total waste!
The workplace and FM profession have a key role to play in helping eliminate, reduce and manage waste, it is an essential ingredient in the mix, from a pollution, resource use, and carbon perspective. Our thinking also needs to be a circular economy-based model, not a linear buy/use/dispose.
Encouragingly a recent survey by the IWFM Sustainability SIG identified “over half (53%) of workplace and facilities management professionals have a good or excellent understanding of the circular economy framework concept”. However, “almost a third (30%) of FMs had little or no understanding of how circular economy principles relate to workplace management”. So while we know what it is there is scope to improve how we use it. The link to the full survey findings is - Circular economy research: positive signs as most FMs understand framework and ‘workplace opportunity’ emerges (iwfm.org.uk)
With waste equally a factor in scope 3 emissions reporting, it is another area where our industry has an opportunity to have a significant and positive effect, not just for our organisations, but for natural resources, pollution, and the planet.