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Statistics on plastic packaging and recycling

The climate and resources charity WRAP sets out that around two-thirds of all plastic packaging comes from consumer goods and plastic bottles were the largest single source of this. An estimated 73% of the plastic bottles produced in 2020/21 were collected from households for recycling. The rate was 47% for pots, tubs and trays and much lower for plastic film at just 4%.

UK exports of plastic waste for recycling peaked in 2011. The largest destinations of exports of plastic waste in 2023 were Turkey and the Netherlands. Domestic recycling of plastic waste has increased in recent years and overtook exports in 2021 for the first time in almost two decades.

Environmental problems and benefits

Plastic waste often does not decompose and can last centuries in landfill, or else ends up as litter in the natural environment, which in turn can pollute soils, rivers and oceans, and harm the creatures that inhabit them. There has also been concern raised that mircoplastics (plastic particles that are smaller than 5 millimetres in size) have an adverse impact on the health of humans and animals, although, as the Royal Society notes further evidence is needed on this issue.

Plastic packaging does have benefits. This includes contributing to food safety and hygiene and in some circumstance, reduces food waste by prolonging the lifespan of foods. It can reduce packaging weight in transit and thereby reducing energy and emissions that would be generated by using alternative materials.

Government ambitions and targets

In 2018 the UK Government set 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 UK Government’ January 2023 Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 set a target to ensure that residual municipal plastic waste does not exceed 42 kg per capita annually, by 31 January 2028. This is equivalent to a 45% reduction from 2019 levels. Residual waste is waste that is sent to landfill, put through incineration or used in energy recovery in the UK or overseas.

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 followed on individual policy areas, some of which have been UK-wide or jointly with the devolved administrations.

As part of this work a new UK-wide plastic packaging tax took effect from 1 April 2022. It is designed to encourage the use of recycled rather than new plastic within plastic packaging.

Other policy proposals that have not yet been introduced are:

  • Introducing a deposit return scheme (joint scheme for England, Wales and Northern Ireland). The Scottish Government has consulted separately on its own proposals. Schemes are expected to start from October 2025.
  • Simplifying recycling collections in England to ensure a consistent set of materials is collected across local authorities. This is expected to start from 31 March 2026 for households and from 31 March 2025 for non-household municipal premises.
  • Revising the existing extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme in the UK. EPR is about incentivising packaging producers to take financial responsibility for the end recycling of their products. The main change in the revised scheme will be that the full cost of collecting, sorting, recycling and disposing of household packaging waste will be placed on packaging producers rather than local authorities. These fees will vary depending on the amount and type of packaging used, with lower fees for packaging that uses more easily recyclable material. The new scheme is expected to start from October 2025.

Separately the UK and devolved governments have introduced serval different pieces of legislation to ban certain single use plastic products, including single-use plastic plates, cutlery, cotton buds and balloon sticks, with further restrictions proposed on items including single use vapes and wet wipes containing plastic.

Plastics in the marine environment

Estimates vary as to how much plastic is in the world’s oceans, marine or aquatic environments. In 2021 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that there were 75 to 199 million tonnes of plastic in oceans across the world.  A November 2023 OECD report (PDF) estimated there were around 152 million tonnes of plastic in aquatic environments in 2020.

The UK Government is involved at an international level with a range of initiatives to tackle ocean plastics. For example, in March 2022, at the United Nations Environment Assembly, heads of state, ministers of environment and other representatives from 175 nations signed a resolution committing to developing an international legally binding agreement (PDF), by 2024, that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic pollution.

EU strategy for plastics

In December 2019 the European Commission published a European “Green Deal” and a new Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), which includes further proposals to reduce plastic litter and improve recycling. The CEAP seeks to ensure that “all packaging on the EU market is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030”.

As part of its European Green Deal work, the European Commission has proposed to revise the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and set a  headline target to reduce packaging waste by 15% by 2040 per Member State per capita, compared to 2018. This is anticipated to lead to an overall waste reduction in the EU of 37% compared to a scenario without changing the legislation.

Plastics exports

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). The Basel Convention was 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. Further consultation will happen before the provisions come into force.

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 (break down naturally).

On 22 July 2019 the UK Government published Standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics: call for evidence to inform its understanding of the scientific evidence available and where there were gaps. A summary of responses and government response to this consultation was published in April 2021. In relation to oxo-biodegradable plastics, (plastics with an added additive to aid biodegradation, but which may not fully degrade) the government said that it was minded to ban these materials, subject to further consultation. No further consultation has yet been published.

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