It’s Wednesday, January 18, and England has announced a ban on single-use plastic foodware.

Plastic cutlery

Restaurants and cafes throughout England will soon be barred from using some of the most common single-use plastics — a ban green groups called necessary, insufficient, and long overdue.

The long-anticipated regulation, announced Saturday, makes it illegal for those establishments to sell or distribute certain kinds of polystyrene cups and food packaging, as well as plastic plates, trays, bowls, and cutlery designed to be used once and thrown away. It takes effect in October.

The new policy is “a really positive step in the right direction … but we’re coming to the party late,” said Steve Hynd, media and policy manager for the British environmental organization City to Sea. The 27 members of the European Union have been subject to a bloc-wide directive since July 2021 banning the items included in England’s new policy, and several have proposed additional legislation to curb plastic waste.

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England uses more than 5 billion single-use plates and cutlery items each year, according to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. Most are made of plastic and end up incinerated, in landfills, or tossed aside as litter that leaches hazardous chemicals or breaks down into microplastics that contaminate the food chain. Because they are made primarily from fossil fuels, their production releases planet-warming greenhouse gases and disproportionately exposes marginalized communities to pollution.

Hynd said more systemic action is needed to substantiate England’s pledge to eliminate “unavoidable” plastic waste by 2043. He called for a legally binding target to halve single-use plastic production by 2025 and for the expansion of systems that encourage reusable alternatives.

Such policies should be seen as an opportunity to create a cleaner United Kingdom, Hynd said. He pictures a future in which it’s possible to walk through a park without seeing plastic littering the landscape or to sit on a beach without watching it wash ashore. Plastic bans, he said, are only part of a “much bigger journey to achieving that vision.”

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