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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.

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.

UK 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 follows on from and is 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’s December 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy contained a number of polices aimed at reducing plastic waste.

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 suite of consultations then followed in February 2019 which provided more detailed information on a number of proposals:

Proposals on a deposit return scheme, consistency in recycling and reform of the extended producer responsibility systems are now included in the Environment Bill 2019-21. The Scottish Government has already made regulations to introduce a deposit return scheme from July 2022.Following a consultation exercise in October 2018, the Government made regulations to ban the sale of plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers, subject to certain exemptions, which came into force in England in October 2020. A ban on cotton buds is already in place in Scotland.

Successive UK Governments have also signed-up-to many international agreements aimed at reducing plastic in the marine environment. For example, the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance.

Some of these policies and proposals are UK-wide (such as the packaging producer responsibility system and plastic packaging tax), whereas for others separate consultation has been undertaken by the devolved Governments – for example for the deposit return scheme in Scotland. This briefing paper explains further which proposals stem from which Government. Government responses to these consultations were published in July 2019.

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, when transposed in 2021, will ban specified items of single use plastic. 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.

Other plastics issues

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.

In July 2018 the not-for-profit resources organisation, 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 Government published Standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics: call for evidence to inform better its understanding.

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 increase 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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