A ban on plastic straws, plastic drink stirrers, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds is set to go into effect in England in April 2020, the UK government confirmed Wednesday in a press release.
"These items are often used for just a few minutes but take hundreds of years to break down, ending up in our seas and oceans and harming precious marine life,” said Environment Secretary Michael Gove in a statement.
When it ends up in a body of water, plastic waste can injure or kill fish, seabirds, and marine mammals, as they either ingest the plastic materials or become entangled in it. To date, plastic ocean pollution has affected at least 267 species worldwide.
While the law establishes a total ban on drink stirrers, it only limits the usage of straws and cotton buds, the Guardian reports.
Plastic straws – almost 5 billion of which are currently used in the UK annually – will no longer be sold in grocery stores, but they will remain available at pharmacies and online. And although restaurants will not be able to display or regularly supply plastic straws, they are permitted to provide them if requested by a customer.
These exceptions to the ban on plastic straws exist because people with disabilities often depend on them.
"Anyone can ask for a straw and be given one without needing to prove a disability — we've been working with disabled groups so that they don't feel stigmatized,” a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said, clarifying who falls under the exception.
Approximately 1.8 billion cotton buds are used in the UK every year, Defra estimates. Once the measure is enacted, cotton buds will only be allowed for medical and scientific laboratories purposes.
The ban is the result of almost two years of deliberation by the UK government and consultations with experts on the issue.
It was first considered following the last episode on David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series in 2017, in which he highlighted the issue of plastic pollution, according to the BBC.
Gove reportedly said that he was “haunted” by the destruction of the world’s oceans depicted in the nature series.
The series also contributed to public awareness of the issue, which spurred everyday people to reduce their plastic usage.
Environmental advocates applauded the government’s decision.
“Stopping the production and distribution of these single-use plastic menaces will prevent them from polluting beaches nationwide," Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage, said. "It’s a really positive and bold step in the right direction against plastic pollution."
Some environmentalists note that the country still has a lot of work to do to reduce the problem of plastic waste. Recent surveys show that the country’s waterways are overflowing with plastic waste. Environmental groups, like the Campaign to Protect Rural England, warn against the hazards of plastic alternatives and say that the government needs to create more stringent laws on plastic use and pollution.
“These three items are just a fraction of the single-use nasties that are used for a tiny amount of time before polluting the environment for centuries to come,” Emma Priestland, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told the Guardian.
“Ultimately, we need producers to take responsibility for the plastic pollution caused by all their products, whether it’s bags, balloons, packets, containers or otherwise,” she added. “That’s why we’re campaigning for legislation to cut back on pointless plastic across the board."
Similar bans are being considered by Scotland and Wales, the BBC reported, and over the past month, the European Union established a more specific and far-reaching ban on single-use plastics.