The Draft Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020 would restrict the supply of single-use plastic straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic drink stirrers in England from October 2020.

The Government laid the instrument under the draft affirmative procedure on 19 May 2020. It supersedes an earlier draft which the Government laid before Parliament in March 2020. It said that it had withdrawn the earlier instrument due to the challenges posed to businesses and local authorities by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The House of Lords is due to debate the instrument on 10 July 2020. This In Focus article sets out background to the regulations ahead of that debate.

What would the instrument do?

According to the draft explanatory memorandum for the statutory instrument—prepared by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)—the purpose of the regulations is to:

Restrict the supply of single-use plastic straws, single-use plastic-stemmed cotton buds, and plastic drink stirrers, in order to prevent pollution of the environment or harm to the health of humans and animals.

The policy background section of the explanatory memorandum provides further information on what is being done and why. It says the intention of the restrictions is to:

Help protect the environment for future generations, improve the quality of the environment, and reduce harm to human health and marine life. This instrument will ensure that drinking straws, stirrers and cotton buds sold in England are made of more environmentally friendly materials as well as promote the use of reusable alternatives. The restrictions also intend to increase consumer and business awareness of the environmental harms which single-use plastics can cause when they are incorrectly disposed of. The exemptions will ensure that those who rely on using plastic straws suffer no welfare costs following the restrictions.

What exemptions are there to the restrictions?

The explanatory memorandum sets out that exemptions would apply to the restrictions:

[to] allow for the movement of these items through the supply chain from business to business, but restrict the final supply of these items to individuals unless one or more of the given exemption criteria is met.

Focusing on these, it said that the exemptions stem from “extensive engagement with relevant stakeholders and responses to the consultation” and were as follows:

  • Plastic straws
    The Government said that responses to its consultation made clear that plastic straws are essential for people with disabilities or accessibility needs. Therefore, it said plastic straws will continue to be available as medical devices and be able to be supplied through registered pharmacies and in catering establishments on demand only. Some other establishments, such as care homes, prisons, and educational establishments, will also be able to provide plastic straws for the same purpose.
  • Plastic-stemmed cotton buds
    The Government said the supply of plastic-stemmed cotton buds will be exempt for medical, scientific and forensic purposes due to “the importance of the use of plastic in ensuring the item provides the requisite strength, stiffness, hygiene, and reduced contamination risk”.
  • Plastic drink stirrers
    In the case of plastic drink stirrers, the memorandum explains there are no exemptions.

What is the background to the policy?

The explanatory memorandum chronicles the development of the policy. It said that in January 2018, the Government published a 25 year environmental plan. This set out an ambition to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation. The Government’s plan outlined steps to achieve this ambition, including new measures to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste.

Later that year, the Government announced proposals for a ban on the distribution and/or sale of plastic straws, plastic drinks stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. It consulted on these proposals between October and December 2018. In May 2019, the Government published the summary of responses and its response to the consultation. This confirmed that restrictions on the supply of plastic straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds, and drinks stirrers would be implemented in April 2020, with some exemptions. The Government has since delayed this due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Commenting on why it had laid the instrument, the Government explained that:

On 16 January 2020 the draft instrument was notified to the European Union under the Technical Standards and Regulations Directive (“TSRD”) as well as to the World Trade Organisation under the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (“TBTA”). The TRSD continues to apply to the United Kingdom during the Transition Period following EU Exit. It requires legislation which affects or may affect trade in the EU to be notified to the EU at least three months before being made, and consideration to be given to any representations made by the European Commission or member states during that period. No objections have been received pursuant to either notification. Comments were received from the European Commission and considered.

What parliamentary scrutiny has there been?

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee reported on the instrument in its 16th report of session 2019–21:

These draft Regulations propose to ban the supply of single-use plastic straws, single-use plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic drink stirrers in England to prevent environmental pollution and harm to human and animal health. The instrument supersedes an earlier instrument which was laid before Parliament in March 2020 and which we reported on but which was subsequently withdrawn. The new instrument includes the same exemptions for the use of plastic straws and plastic-stemmed cotton buds for medical and certain other specified purposes. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) explains that the earlier instrument was withdrawn because of the huge challenges posed to businesses and local authorities by the pandemic, and that the Government were mindful of introducing new burdens on them at this time. The new draft Regulations delay the introduction of the ban from the end of April until October 2020.

While we understand the Government’s concerns, we also note that, as the ban was first announced in April 2018, businesses and local authorities have had considerable time to prepare before the pandemic began. Defra told us that the new instrument contains some minor corrections and consequential changes and an updated transitional provision which will enable retailers to continue supplying existing stock obtained before the instrument comes into force, rather than stock obtained before 30 April 2020, as under the previous instrument. We have asked the department to revise the Explanatory Memorandum (EM) to include this further information. We welcome that in addition to the EM and an impact assessment in relation to the ban on plastic straws, the department has published regulatory triage assessments for the ban on plastic stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds which were not publicly available when we considered the original instrument.

However, the committee did not draw it to the special attention of the House.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments also considered the regulations, but did not raise any concerns.

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In May 2018, a Defra commissioned report into the economic, environmental and social impacts of a potential ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and drink stirrers was published.

In addition, in a press release announcing the ban in May 2019, the Government said that in England it is estimated that each year people use:

•           4.7 billion plastic straws;

•           316 million plastic stirrers; and

•           1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

It also said that an estimated 10% of cotton buds are flushed down toilets and can end up in waterways and oceans.

A copy of the draft is available on the website:

Information about the instrument’s completed stages is available on the UK Parliament website:

Image by Bilderjet at Pixabay.