Plastic Straws, Stirrers, and Cotton Swabs Banned in England

The country is cracking down on polluting single-use plastics.

bunch of colorful plastic straws
You won't see these in British bars or restaurants anymore.

Matthew Horwood / Getty Images 

It's been years in the making, and it finally came into effect on October 1st. There is now a ban across England on all single-use plastic straws, stir-sticks, and cotton swabs with plastic stems. Businesses will not be allowed to offer these to clients anymore, unless they have disabilities or medical conditions that require them

The BBC reported that an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers, and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton swabs are used in England every year. These are difficult or impossible to recycle and often end up in the natural environment. The Marine Conservation Society has said that these small single-use items are common culprits found to pollute British beaches during annual cleanups. 

The UK's Environment Secretary George Eustice said that this new ban is "just the next step in our battle against plastic pollution and our pledge to protect our ocean and the environment" for future generations. Previous steps include a five pence surcharge on single-use plastic bags, which has successfully curbed use by 95%, and banning microbeads from personal care products. Next on the list is implementing a deposit return scheme to incentivize recycling of single-use beverage containers. Eustice affirmed that the government is "firmly committed" to tackling the environmental "devastation" caused by single-use plastics (via BBC). 

Some critics have complained about these single-use plastics being low-hanging fruit and hardly effective in the big picture, as they represent a small fraction of the plastics littering the environment. But where else is a country supposed to start? These small-scale changes condition a populace to view plastic in a different and more negative light, inspiring them to make further changes to their own personal habits and making them more inclined to accept broader, systemic changes.

Fortunately, the newly banned items are superfluous for the most part and easily replaced with reusable or biodegradable alternatives. Spoons, wooden sticks, or pieces of raw spaghetti make great stirrers; cotton swabs can be made with paper stems (although it's better not to use them at all); and straws are easily replaced for many of us with our built-in sippers – our lips! If getting lipstick on a glass isn't your thing, there's no reason why you can't start carrying a handy reusable straw in your bag, car, or bike pannier, as you probably already do for your sunglasses and phone. (If you're shopping, check out Final Straw. I love mine.)

Let's celebrate the small steps forward because they're certainly better than nothing, and England is setting a good example for the rest of the world.