It only takes a short walk along London's Regent's Canal to witness the sheer volume of littered single-use plastics (SUP).

The government's Department of Environment, Food and Rural affairs (Defra) has reported that each person in England uses 18 SUP plates and 37 SUP items of cutlery each year and tackling this issue is next on Defra's agenda. To do so, Defra has put forward a policy proposal to ban the supply of certain commonly littered SUPs.

Proposed ban and timeline

So what's first on Defra's hit list? - (1) SUP plates, (2) plastic cutlery, (3) balloon sticks and (4) polystyrene cups and food containers. Earlier this year, Defra launched a public consultation on this matter, with the results due to be published in the coming weeks or months. If Defra concludes that a ban on the supply of such items is appropriate, it may come into effect from as early as April 2023. The SUP ban is envisioned to build on the success of previous bans, such as on products that contain microbeads, and on the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds (from October 2020 in England).

BRC's perspective

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has considered the proposed ban from retailers' perspectives and recently published its responses to Defra's consultation. Although the BRC largely shares the government’s ambition to increase recycling rates and tackle litter through a comprehensive policy framework, the BRC does not believe that the proposed ban would be the most appropriate measure. One of the BRC's reasons for this is that there is already a changing framework on packaging which will lead to substantial changes in terms of packaging materials placed on the market. For example, as foreshadowed in an RPC blog last year, the UK’s Plastic Packaging Tax took effect on 1 April 2022 and applies to plastic packaging in the UK that contains less than 30% recycled plastic content at a rate of £200 per metric tonne.

Given that the proposed ban is targeted at commonly littered SUPs, the BRC reiterated that it does not consider consumers' propensity to litter to depend on the material of the product– but rather on behavioural attitudes. This, the BRC argues, would not be directly addressed by a ban on the supply of certain products.

The BRC is also concerned that Defra's plan requires too much too soon and is too far reaching. According to the BRC, the potential deadline of April 2023 does not give retailers enough to time to prepare. Furthermore, the BRC highlighted that the implications of a blanket policy ban on SUPs could be felt across more businesses in various sectors, than originally envisaged by the government. For example, in the hospitality sector (especially since the pandemic), the majority of restaurants are now providing a takeaway/ home delivery option as a way of recouping costs.

Retailer preparations The proposed ban has not yet been agreed – but are there things which retailers could be doing with respect to this hit list and other SUP items in the meantime?

Studies show that 3.7 million tonnes of plastic are thrown away in the UK each year, with 32% recycled and 30% littered and retailers are considered to have an important part to play in tackling the issue of plastic consumption and waste. Significant change has already been documented, with 78% of plastic drinks bottles now being recycled. Retailers are increasingly recognising that consumers are becoming more demanding about the commitments made by retailers to reduce their plastic wastage in line with long term sustainability goals. As such, and in order to prepare for possible SUP bans, retailers could start exploring alternative products for plastic use within the targeted segments of the proposed legislation and more widely (such as biodegradable plates and cups).

However, there is still much up for debate in this area and retailers should keep a watchful eye on progress before expending large amounts of resource on changes. The chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben, recently warned that a blind demand for plastic-free items, without considering why the plastic material has been used, could lead to increased food waste, due to decreased plastic benefits of product life extension.

Consumer behaviours – what more can retailers do? Finding the balance between consumers' and retailers' responsibilities in this area is not straightforward. A study conducted by Mastercard found that, as a result of the pandemic, 85% of adults around the world are willing to take personal action to fight against environmental and sustainability issues. There is also widespread recognition that littering of SUPs (as targeted by the proposed ban) is the result of consumer behaviour. However, some retailers may not wish to leave the need for action entirely down to their consumers, and instead may be willing to take a further step in actively encouraging changes to those habits.

Coca-Cola recently announced that it will introduce caps which are attached to its 1.5L plastic bottles, making it easier to recycle the entire packaging and reducing the potential for the caps to be littered. The switch is set to be completed for all sizes of its plastic bottles across its full range of brands by early 2024. This type of campaign illustrates how some consumer brands are willing to try to tackle littering issues. Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP), in a bid to make 100% of their packaging recyclable by 2026, recently swapped hard to recycle shrink wrap plastic with fully recyclable cardboard packaging on their multipacks cans. Other consumer brands have pushed similar initiatives.

Looking ahead, it is clear that a cross collaboration between consumers, the government and retailers is needed to achieve lasting behavioural and lifestyle shifts, as well as a significant reduction in the production and use of SUPs.

… and RPC's bit?

RPC has recently been awarded official partnership status with Vayyu Foundation's UOcean project. Groups of colleagues regularly volunteer to clean London's waterways of plastic pollution, with a recent team of 12 employees successfully picking 15.6kg of plastic out of the Paddington canal.