Not too long ago, we would think nothing of using multiple straws on a night out, never imagining the devastating effect of this throwaway convenience.
But the time has come to wake up. An estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds are used in the UK each year, and the impact this usage has on marine life is horrifying.
Plastic straws don’t decompose, and are among the top ten items found during Greenpeace beach clean-ups. They are known to be very harmful for marine life, who are risk of accidentally ingesting discarded straws.
It’s thought there is over 150 million tonnes of plastic currently polluting the world’s oceans. Each year, an estimated one million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals die after eating and becoming tangled up in plastic waste.
With this figure set to treble by 2025, the UK Government is taking action. Following an open consultation, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has today confirmed plastic straws, drinks stirrers, and plastic stemmed cotton buds will be banned in England from April 2020.
Gove has made the following statement:
Urgent and decisive action is needed to tackle plastic pollution and protect our environment.
These items are often used for just a few minutes but take hundreds of years to break down, ending up in our seas and oceans and harming precious marine life.
So today I am taking action to turn the tide on plastic pollution, and ensure we leave our environment in a better state for future generations.
An estimated 95 per cent of straws are still plastic, despite the availability of non-plastic alternatives.
However, it would appear that the general public are beginning to comprehend the damage these one-use plastic items are wreaking on our planet.
The government consultation on this upcoming ban revealed how more than 80 per cent of respondents backed a ban on plastic straws, with 90 per cent supporting a drinks stirrers ban, and 89 per cent in favour of a ban on plastic stemmed cotton buds.
CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, Hugo Tagholm, said:
Surfers Against Sewage welcome the ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. 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 in the battle against plastic pollution.
It is also helps further drive plastic-free options and alternatives for the public so they can truly make more sustainable choices in their daily lives.
BREAKING: Amazing news! 😮 The government just announced a ban on plastic straws, stirrers & ear buds in England. RT to celebrate.
— SurfersAgainstSewage (@sascampaigns) May 22, 2019
Plastic straws are of course necessary in some instances for medical reasons, and so the government will therefore make sure they are still available for those who need them.
Registered pharmacies will still be permitted to sell plastic straws, while restaurants, pubs and bars will be able to provide them if requested.
Exemptions will also be put in place for the use of plastic-stemmed cotton buds for medical, forensic and scientific purposes, in cases where they are the only viable option.
Trailblazers Manager at Muscular Dystrophy UK, Lauren West, said:
Plastic straws are sometimes the only type of straw that work for disabled people due to their flexibility and ability to be used in hot and cold drinks. While we appreciate the need to reduce the use of plastics, traditional single-use straws are essential for some disabled people.
If disabled people cannot access plastic straws when out it could put their health at risk as they may not be able to drink and could become dehydrated. We’re pleased the Government has recognised this in its proposals put forward today.
We would encourage Defra to continue consulting disabled people and groups like Trailblazers to ensure we are not disadvantaged or targeted and stigmatised for using single-use plastics.
Countless number of animals are harmed daily from the pollution of plastic straws. It needs to stop, it's time to make the switch today. Get your first reusable straw here! https://t.co/uHOU2YbyCa pic.twitter.com/3g9OaPwdrp
— Collapsible Straws (@CollapsingStraw) May 22, 2019
This is of course a very positive step forward, but some environmental campaigners have suggested more needs to be done to implement lasting change.
Just One Ocean, David Jones, told UNILAD how this step was akin to ‘putting a plaster on an arterial wound’:
I am pleased that the government has taken this step. These products are not essential to our lives and ultimately they find their way into the environment where they don’t belong. But I am struggling to get excited about it.
This type of knee jerk, crowd pleasing reaction to public opinion by the government is not the solution to what is a far bigger problem and we should not fool ourselves into thinking it is.
It is a bit like putting a plaster on an arterial wound – at best it will only slow down the inevitable.
We urgently need a strategic plan that incorporates science, education, innovation, alternatives, public engagement and legislation in an holistic and coordinated approach. Only then will we begin to resolve this global crisis.
Hopefully the government will continue to build on this momentum, working to make the horrors of plastic pollution a thing of the past.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.