Explore the UK's single-use plastic ban with our comprehensive guide: what's banned, why it matters, and its impact on businesses and the environment.
It can feel at times as though it’s slipped under the news radar a little, but as of the 1st of October 2023, businesses are no longer able to supply, sell or offer certain single-use plastic items in England. This matters to businesses. Not only could you get fined should you continue to do so after this date, but as responsible business owners, you should want to do the right thing for the future of our planet.
“Single-use” plastics are defined by the government as, “to be used only once for its original purpose”, while the “plastic” they’re referring to is “items wholly or partly made from plastic, including coating or lining”. For those who wish to dig a little deeper, The Regulations define 'plastic' as "a material consisting of polymer... to which additives or other substances may have been added, and which can function as a main structural component of final products, with the exception of natural polymers that have not been chemically modified".
The ban applies specifically to single-use plastic straws, cotton buds, and to plastic drink stirrers (sometimes called “balloon sticks”). It also applies to single-use plastic plates, bowls and trays (when supplied to the public), and polystyrene food and drink containers, albeit with some exemptions.
There’s no getting away from it; the numbers on our use of single-use plastics make for horrendous reading. It’s estimated that England alone gets through 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds per year and that 10% of this ends up in waterways and oceans. It’s estimated that 30% of the plastic that we use is single-use.
Furthermore, it’s increasingly clear that corporate culture is moving towards a more environmentally conscious outlook. To ignore such matters isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s about being in step with current business practices.
There will also likely be ramifications for those who don’t comply with the new rules. There may be a financial cost from replacing your single-use plastics with something more sustainable, but it’ll be nothing in comparison with a fine for non-compliance. And increasingly, this damage could also become reputational. Social media allows the instant publication of opinions about businesses, and those who pursue bad environmental practices tend to be in the crosshairs more than others.
There are strategies that businesses can adopt to transition away from single-use plastics, and at the very least, you should be documenting your inventory to confirm your legal compliance.
Alternatives to single-use plastics are readily available, and if your company is customer-facing you can seek feedback from your customers to ensure that you’re still providing them with the quality that they expect. But at all levels, by introducing a culture of efficiency and sustainability, your company can easily transition to a future that is better for the planet.
The good news is that plenty of sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics exist. Disposable earbuds can be replaced with reusable ones, while the same can be said for drinking cups, especially if those replacement cups are made of metal rather than using more plastic. Polystyrene and plastic food and drinks containers are already being replaced with cardboard.
The first key ingredient to integrating sustainability into your supply chain takes place in your head, an attitudinal shift which places sustainability at the heart of all of your business practices. Map out a comprehensive understanding of your supply chain, because without this map it’s doubtful that you’ll even be able to start implementing effective sustainability changes.
Showcase your success stories, build momentum within your organisation and encourage your staff to come up with their own ideas for how to integrate sustainable practices within your business operations. Get your suppliers onboard, too. Making these changes will be much easier for everyone if you’re all moving in the same direction at the same time.
Local authorities will carry out inspections to make sure the rules are being followed. Inspectors can visit a shop or store, make test purchases, speak to staff and ask to see records. If it is found that you have broken the law, inspectors can order your business to cover the cost of the investigation. Complaints about a business breaking the law can be made to Trading Standards.
Fines can be issued for non-compliance and although Trading Standards do not have the power to stop your company from trading, they may request a court injunction. But this is at the most extreme end of their spectrum. The size of the fines that may be issued against non-compliant companies hasn’t been publicly confirmed.
Detailed guidance on how to deal with this change can be found here. It is also worth remembering that there are also exemptions for some products from some uses, so do check those; they are listed on the government’s general guidance page. Bear in mind that these rules only apply to England, and not to the whole UK. The Welsh government has followed suit, with effect from the 30th of October 2023. The law has already been in place in Scotland since August 2022 and has run without any significant hitches.
Having a sustainable brand strategy isn't solely about reducing your environmental impact or supporting social causes. It's also a matter of communicating your values, goals and achievements to your customers in a way that builds trust, loyalty, and marks your organisation out from the crowd.
You’ll need to prepare. Make sure you understand what you want to achieve from your strategy and set targets which are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. These will ensure that you’re focused on what you want to achieve from it and able to successfully measure the impact of your strategy. Social media can be used to amplify your voice. Targeted emails can connect you to customers.
As concerns over the condition of the environment continue to grow, having such a profile is becoming increasingly essential to all businesses. If you can demonstrate how your sustainability goals and achievements align with your customers' values, needs, and aspirations, as well as highlight the benefits from the outcomes of your actions, you will benefit, both commercially and reputationally.
It’s understandable to wish to recoil from any new regulation, but it is already abundantly clear that it will only be regulation which brings the changes to our practices which our fragile ecology needs if it is to survive. It’s equally understandable to assume that your impact is tiny and that it won’t make any difference.
And it is only through everybody playing a proactive role that we can move forward into a more sustainable future. The changes to laws on single-use plastics are a challenge to the business community to demonstrate its commitment to the environment.
But this isn’t only a matter of principles. It is clear that the market is reacting more favourably toward green initiatives. By taking a lead on sustainability, your company can also steal a march on rivals who are slower to react in an always competitive marketplace. Moving towards a more sustainable future makes both business and ethical sense. What are you waiting for?
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