England's bold bans, Taiwan's tactical phasing, and Australia's state-led approach; Three markets exemplify the potential difficulty in determining if, how, and when single-use plastics regulations could affect your international business.
In an era of growing environmental and human health concerns, the pervasive presence and detrimental impact of single-use plastics (SUPs) on our planet has fueled demands for change. In response, an increasing number of governments worldwide have implemented restrictions on SUP items. These policies vary significantly in their target, scope, and enforcement, showcasing a dynamic landscape of regulatory measures that directly impact agriculture, food, and beverage exporters. In a previous Global Insights article, we identified seven common policy pathways governments are using to improve packaging sustainability:
- Avoid plastic packaging
- Reduce excessive packaging
- Replace packaging materials with more environmentally friendly alternatives
- Recycle packaging
- Compost packaging and labels
- Reuse packaging
- Safety requirements for recycled materials
In this article, we zoom in on the first of those policy pathways to closely examine how three different markets – the United Kingdom, Taiwan, and Australia – are avoiding plastic packaging by implementing SUP restrictions.
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom (UK) has regulated SUPs at both the UK-wide and individual country levels to allow for a combination of unified efforts and regional adaptations.
The UK Internal Market Act 2020 (IMA) establishes market access principles for goods in the UK and includes a mutual recognition principle that provides that goods produced in or imported into one part of the UK can be sold in any other part of the UK. This Act was recently amended to exclude a list of SUP items – straws, drink stirrers, plates, cutlery, and food and drink containers or cups made of expanded or extruded polystyrene – and allows individual countries (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) to regulate and ban these items on their own terms. Scotland was the first UK country to ban these items, with its SUP Regulations entering into force on June 1, 2022. Northern Ireland has not yet proposed an SUP ban, but held a public consultation between October 2021-January 2022 on proposals for the reduction of SUP beverage cups and food containers
Wales’s SUP Act achieved royal assent on June 6, 2023, and bans the IMA-exempt items above beginning autumn 2023. England’s 2023 SUP Regulations are expected to enter into force soon and (from the list above) will ban SUP plates, cutlery, and food and drink containers and cups made of polystyrene on October 1, 2023. Both Wales and England also propose to ban additional items not included in the IMA exemption, creating some regulatory uncertainty. Wales wishes to ban polystyrene lids for cups and takeaway containers, some carrier bags, and oxo-degradable products. England would seek to ban SUP trays and bowls. It is unclear whether these additional SUP will be enabled by an expanded IMA exclusion, or how they could be enforced without that exclusion.
Taiwan was one of the earliest actors to address SUPs, beginning with its 2002 ban on providing plastic bags free of charge across seven types of enterprises (i.e., fast-food restaurants, retail stores, schools, etc.). Over the past two decades, Taiwan has sought to achieve a continuous decline in SUP consumption by gradually expanding restrictions. The government first prohibits the free provision of specific SUP items in certain types of enterprises, then expands the restrictions to additional items and types of enterprises. Taiwan has set its policies at the national level but sometimes leaves the implementation and ban date up to municipal areas. In 2018 (updated in 2020), Taiwan released the Marine Waste Management Action Plan (in Chinese), outlining its primary goal of banning many SUPs by 2030. Below is a snapshot of this phased approach for one specific SUP category: tableware.
In another example of the evolving restrictions, Taiwan this year announced a draft amendment to this Disposable Tableware Ban, establishing that tableware made of biodegradable plastic is to be treated the same as non-biodegradable plastic and not accepted as an alternative to disposable plastics. The regulation is expected to enter into force on August 1, 2023.
Australia has taken a state-led, gradual approach to reducing SUP items, with the national government contributing a 2021 National Plastics Plan, which sets voluntary targets. Each state or territory has adopted legislation or a strategy banning various SUPs along differing timelines. For example, most states have banned or are planning to ban SUP cutlery, stirrers, straws, plates, and bowls, while only Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia have plans to ban SUP produce bags. Most states have also banned or are planning to ban SUP and/or expanded polystyrene (EPS) food-ware and takeaway containers, while only some have plans to ban SUP and/or EPS cups and trays.
Looking at these three example markets, it is easy to see that there is a great deal of variation in the choice of SUP items to restrict, the level of government at which these policies are being developed, and the decision to ban or only discourage placing these items into the market. As markets across the globe each develop and expand their own SUP regulations, it is hard for businesses to keep track and ensure compliance.
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• “While regulations to avoid plastic packaging have been adopted by many countries, there is a great deal of variation in the choice of SUP items to restrict, the level of government at which these policies are being developed, and the decision to ban or only discourage placing these items into the market.”