Ministers have been accused by campaigners of failing to uphold their Brexit promise of ensuring UK environmental standards do not drop following the divorce with Brussels.
European Union member states are currently legislating to bring in a Brussels directive to ban the most polluting single-use plastics, including cutlery, plates and polystyrene food containers, but the UK Government has yet to follow suit in England.
UK Government ministers regularly stated following the 2016 Brexit referendum that the country would uphold high environmental standards even after the split from the bloc, promising to be a world leader in green issues.
But PA news agency can disclose that 21 campaign groups – including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, City to Sea and Keep Britain Tidy – are due to challenge the Government on its commitments, warning that a failure to keep up with EU anti-plastic regulations would be an “awful dereliction of promises to lead on environmental issues post-Brexit”.
In a letter on Tuesday to environment minister Rebecca Pow, they will argue that standards in England are set to drop below both the EU and the rest of the UK if ministers do not act.
Boris Johnson’s administration has legislated against straws, stirrers and cotton buds, which are part of the EU-wide directive which came into force on July 3, but has yet – unlike other devolved parts of the UK – to ban plastic cutlery, plates or sticks attached to balloons, along with other tough-to-breakdown plastic food containers and packaging.
An online petition calling for Ms Pow to outlaw such single-use items in England had attracted more than 75,000 signatures by Sunday.
In the open letter to the junior minister, the groups state that the “Government is not only failing to take the lead on tackling plastics but is falling behind our European neighbours and devolved nations within the UK” if it does not ban the polluting items listed in Article 5 of the EU single-use directive.
Campaigners are calling on ministers to “at the very least” bring in a ban in England against the products listed in the EU directive, with the pandemic sparking fresh fears that ground has been lost in the battle against single-use plastics, which are making their way onto Britain’s beaches and waterways.
The coronavirus crisis has lead to a sharp increase in the production of difficult-to-discard of products such as disposable face coverings and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
Steve Hynd, policy manager at City to Sea – a not-for-profit group that campaigns to stop plastic pollution at source, said: “It’s frankly embarrassing that while other governments are pushing ahead ours is still lagging behind.
“If the Government fails to meet these minimum standards it would be an awful dereliction of their promises to lead on environmental issues post Brexit.”
Nina Schrank, senior campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “The Government claims to be a leader in tackling plastic pollution, yet is falling behind in the most basic of measures.
“They need to match EU legislation in banning some of the most harmful single-use plastics, at the very least.”
Greenpeace is also calling for businesses and food outlets to “step up” and expand their refillable and reusable options.
With environmental issues a devolved responsibility, some of the UK has already proposed similar bans to the EU in their domestic markets.
Northern Ireland, the groups said, is compelled under the Northern Ireland Protocol to have transposed “certain articles” of the directive by 2022, and both Scotland and Wales have proposed bans incorporating single-use plastics.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokeswoman said: “The UK is a global leader in tackling plastic pollution.
“We have banned both microbeads in rinse-off personal care products and the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and our carrier bag charge has cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets.
“Our landmark Environment Bill will give ministers the power to introduce deposit return schemes for plastic drinks containers and make companies more responsible for the packaging they produce, who will be incentivised to use more recyclable materials and to meet higher recycling targets.
“The Bill will also make it easier for ministers to place charges on single-use plastic items that threaten our ecosystems, and we are currently exploring options for which items to target next.”