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No more plastic stirrers or plastic Q-tips either

Tim Nelson
October 22, 2018

In 2018, plastic straws have become a public scourge. It’s easy to see why: at a time when people feel powerless in the fight against impending climate doom, it’s a pretty straightforward approach to cutting back on waste. While anti-straw momentum’s been spurred by private businesses and liberal enclaves like California and New York City, the latest place to plan a ban shows how the movement is progressing at a national level.

This week, the United Kingdom’s government formally begins a consultation period to determine the feasibility of banning the sale of plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds. Though the idea was floated as far back as April, this latest move kicks off the process in earnest, with any subsequent legislation set to take effect sometime between October 2019 and October 2020.

Given the size of the UK, such an edict could go a long way towards taking plastic waste out of circulation. The government estimates that 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers, and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds are thrown away each year in England alone. A decent percentage of that ends up joining the more than 150 billion tons of plastic already adrift in earth’s oceans.

Michael Gove, the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, sees the move as an ambitious effort to confront a dire global threat. “Our precious oceans and the wildlife within need urgent protection from the devastation throwaway plastic items can cause,” he declared. “Today we step-up our efforts to turn the tide on plastic pollution and ensure we leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it."

The ban likely won’t be a unilateral one, with some exemptions granted in situations that would require them. Pharmacies could still be allowed to sell straws to accommodate those with medical or accessibility-related needs. Similarly, pubs and restaurants could keep some straws on hand to provide to patrons upon request.

England isn’t the only European locale to move forward with such a ban. The EU announced its intentions to ban a wider swath of single-use plastic earlier this year, targeting a 2021 implementation. However, continued uncertainty about the when and how of Brexit has pushed the UK to take matters into its own hands, proposing a more aggressive timeline in the process.

It’s certainly a step in the right direction, though there’s much more that needs to be done if we’re to meaningfully address our looming climate crisis. Is banning plastic straws simply a case of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, or a positive step towards bigger changes? Only time—however much of it we have left, that is—will tell.  

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