Navigating the single use plastics ban

Businesses serving food direct to customers need to meet the new guidelines or risk a fine. Here's what you need to know and some potential benefits for your SME.

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From the beginning of October 2023, customer-facing startups have faced an extra challenge, especially if they are serving food. 

The government has banned them from offering several types of single-use plastic items, and those who continue to use them will face fines.

The ban only applies to those serving retail customers (rather than those serving businesses) and includes the following items when used to serve food designed to be eaten straight away.

  • Plastic plates, bowls, and trays
  • Plastic cutlery
  • Polystyrene food and drink containers.

Businesses are now not allowed to use up their current stock of plastic cutlery, but must move to alternatives – a move that has proved challenging for some businesses.

“Many small businesses find themselves at a crossroads, unsure of where to begin, particularly when they’re already contending with rising operational costs,” says Greg Gormley, founder of climate technology start-up Skoot.

“It’s our collective responsibility to ensure that businesses are equipped with the right tools to step up to the challenge.”

What has changed?

The government had already banned plastic stirrers, straws, and cotton buds. Now, companies that serve the public cannot use single-use plates, cutlery or food and drink containers.

The ban includes biodegradable, compostable and recycled plastic, so even those who had put solutions in place may find they still aren’t compliant.

However, the fine that businesses receive if they are not compliant is small – £200, which can be reduced to £100 if paid within 28 days. The regulator can also recover the costs of any investigation into companies not using plastics.

Raff Schieir, director of plastics recycling business prevented Ocean Plastic, sad that “more robust legislation is required”.

“The penalties are not strong enough to encourage businesses to change their behaviour and switch to recycled in a meaningful way. Most companies would still rather pay the tax than improve the circularity of their supply chains. This is why we need the government to incentivise businesses to make better plastic choices,” he says.

Are other plastic items banned?

As well as a charge for plastic bags, which applies to all shops regardless size, the Government introduced a plastic packaging tax last April. This applies to plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content, charged at £200 a tonne. However, companies that manufacture or import less than ten tonnes of plastic packaging a year are exempt. For those who are not exempt, making changes to remove plastic because of these bans is expensive.

Priyanka Swamy, CEO and Founder of human hair extension business Perfect Locks, says the ban has “taken its toll” in terms of cost. “We had to re-evaluate our packaging and invest in more sustainable, environmentally friendly materials. This shift wasn’t just an ethical decision but also strategic as customers increasingly turned to eco-friendly brands.”

What alternatives are out there?

Businesses seeking alternatives to plastic can find more solutions than ever. Anna Laird, from chocolate business Resident Pheasant, now uses cardboard where possible, but says that to ensure food is fresh she also uses a cellulose film made from eucalyptus wood pulp.

“Cost is a little higher than normal plastic.  My biggest issue is that the compostable film and hamper film wrap look exactly like plastic…so there is still a little confusion out there” she says.

Other alternatives include wooden stirrers, paper cups with corrugated sides to ensure that they are not too hot to hold, paper straws and cardboard food containers.

What can be done with old stock?

As mentioned above, even if you are using up old stock  to sell to customer you could still fall foul of the plastics ban. However, Rick Smith, Managing director at business adviser Forbes Burton, says that companies that supply businesses – rather than individuals – can still use the stock.

“The new ruling for plastic plates, bowls and trays only applies to supplying the public, so B2B companies have a little wiggle room,” he says. “Businesses that find themselves with a surplus of old stock may be able to find another company to take them off their hands.”

How can I find the positives?

While finding alternatives to plastic can be expensive, customers often react positively to eco-packaging, especially if businesses explain its significant.

Gormley, at Skoot, says that customers are concerned about plastic use and will actively use businesses that minimise it. He points to a recent YouGov survey of British diners showing that plastic is their top sustainability concern, above tree planting and solar or wind projects.

Communicating to your customers how you’ve removed plastic from your supply chain, whether this is in response to legislation or not, can pay dividends and create brand loyalty.


Rosie Murray-West freelance business journalist
Rosie Murray-West

Rosie Murray-West is a freelance journalist covering all aspects of personal finance, as well as business, property and economics. A former correspondent, columnist and deputy editor at The Telegraph, she now writes regularly for publications including the Times, Sunday Times, Observer, Metro, Mail on Sunday, and Moneywise magazine.

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