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The scale of plastic in the UK

In the UK it is estimated that five million tonnes of plastic is used every year, nearly half of which is packaging. The UK Government publishes regular statistics on the amount of plastic packaging produced and on its final treatment, although some of these statistics have been questioned for their accuracy both by the National Audit Office and WWF-UK.

In 2021 the not-for-profit resources organisation, WRAP, stated that an estimated 1.2Mt (megatonnes) of the UK’s plastic packaging was recycled in 2020, a fourfold increase from levels achieved in the early 2000s. WRAP also set out that in 2018/19, UK local authorities are estimated to have collected 572kt (kilotonnes) of plastic packaging for recycling from the UK household waste stream, 4% higher than the amount collected in 2017/18.

Environmental problems and benefits

Plastic waste often does not decompose and can last centuries in landfill, or else end up as litter in the natural environment, which in turn can pollute soils, rivers and oceans, and harm the creatures that inhabit them.

Single use plastic does have a number of benefits. These include contributing to food safety and hygiene and reducing packaging weight in transit and thereby reducing energy and emissions that would be generated by using alternative materials.

Government ambitions and targets

The UK Government under Prime Minister May had a strategic ambition to “…work towards all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.” This followed on from and was intended to support commitments to leave the environment in a better condition for the next generation and, in particular:

  • an “ambition” of zero avoidable waste by 2050
  • a “target” of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042.

The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own ambitions on plastic waste and plans to move towards a more circular economy.

Government proposals for change

The UK Government’s December 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy contained a number of polices aimed at reducing plastic waste. A range of consultations have then followed on individual areas, some of which have been UK-wide or with specific devolved Governments:

  • Introducing a deposit return scheme (DRS) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland). The Scottish Government has consulted separately on its own proposals and has made regulations to introduce a deposit return scheme, which is now expected to begin in August 2023.
  • Reforming the UK packaging producer responsibility system (UK-wide).
  • Plastic packaging tax (UK-wide).
  • Consistency in household and business recycling (England). Wales has undertaken its own separate consultation on business recycling.

Provisions on a deposit return scheme, consistency in recycling and reform of the extended producer responsibility systems are now included in the Environment Act 2021. Most of these will require further regulations to be made before they can be introduced.

Separately the UK Government and each devolved Government have also consulted on banning certain single use plastic products.

This briefing paper explains further which proposals stem from which Government and when they are expected to come into force.

EU strategy for plastics

At EU level there is a European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. This includes a recently agreed Single Use Plastic Directive which will ban specified items of single use plastic in EU Member States. As the UK is no longer an EU Member, it is no longer required to transpose the Directive. An exception to this is in relation to Northern Ireland where certain articles from the Directive will be transposed under the provisions agreed as part of part of the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement Northern Ireland Protocol (as amended). As waste is a largely devolved area within the UK, it is for each devolved administration to decide if it wants to follow the Directive’s provisions. The Welsh and Scottish Governments have both consulted on banning the full range of single use plastic items set out in the Directive.

In December 2019 the European Commission published a European “Green Deal” and a new Circular Economy Action Plan, which includes further proposals to reduce plastic litter and improve recycling.

Plastics in the marine environment

Successive UK Governments have signed up to many international agreements aimed at reducing plastic in the marine environment. Examples include the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Plastics exports

Local authorities have been affected by a number of issues related to plastic waste. This includes a ban by China on accepting certain types of plastic waste. Local authorities have had to find alternative end destinations for plastic waste, which has in turn increased their costs. It is often difficult for local authorities to find recycling solutions for certain types of black plastic and low-grade plastic.

The UK has various obligations under international, and national law relating to the shipment of waste abroad, particularly under the UN Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal (the Basel Convention) and the relevant regulations. The Basel Convention has been recently amended to require that, from 1 January 2021, a Prior Informed Consent procedure is used for the shipment of certain types of plastic waste. These amended rules apply across the UK.

The UK Government also had a 2019 Manifesto commitment to “ban” the export of plastic waste to non-OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Provision for this has been included in the Environment Act 2021 and will be subject to further consultation. It would be applicable across the UK.

Separately, the EU has banned most plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries, from 1 January 2021. As this occurred after the UK left the EU, these rules do not apply to Great Britain. The UK Government has been criticised for not implementing its own ban, but has responded to emphasise that it is following all current rules and to say that its own proposed ban, when implemented, will go further than the EU’s.

Plastics terminology

In July 2018 WRAP, published a guide, Understanding plastic packaging and the language we use to describe it, setting out some of the terminology problems of describing plastic. In particular, the guide explains how names given to plastics do not necessarily dictate the way the plastic will behave at the end of its life, for example that the term “bioplastic” does not automatically mean it will biodegrade.

On 22 July 2019 the UK Government published Standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics: call for evidence to inform better its understanding of the scientific evidence available and where there gaps. A summary of responses and Government response to this consultation was published in April 2021. In relation to oxo-biodegradable plastics, the Government said that it was minded to ban these materials, subject to further consultation.

Voluntary initiatives

There are a number of initiatives aimed at changing the way that plastics are designed, produced, used, re-used, disposed of and reprocessed by all stakeholders in the plastics chain. Examples of these include:

  • the “Plastics Pact”, a collaboration of businesses, which has set a target to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging, for all plastic packaging to be re‑usable, recyclable or compostable and for 70% to be recycled or composted by 2025.
  • The “Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan” (PIRAP), an industry action plan which includes: increased collection of recyclable plastics; improved sorting; and developing end markets for recycled plastics.
  • The “UK Circular Plastics Network” (UKCPN), which aims to bring together plastic product users through a programme of networking and knowledge-sharing events.

Supermarkets and retailers also have many initiatives aimed at reducing plastic packaging, having plastic-free aisles and allowing customers to use their own packaging containers.


There has been some concern about the environmental consequences of an increased use of plastic products during the COVID-19 pandemic and about a delay to environmental legislation. Packaging manufacturers are keen for a green recovery to include a move towards greater sustainability and a more circular economy.

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