House of Commons Library

Plastic waste

Published Monday, September 30, 2019

A House of Commons Library Briefing Paper on plastic waste in the UK, including statistics on plastic waste and information on UK Government and devolved Government plans and ambitions to reduce avoidable plastic waste and examples of voluntary initiatives from the plastics industry, environmental groups and retailers.

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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, and demand is rising. 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.

Other plastics issues

Local authorities have been affected by a number of issues related to plastic waste. These include a recent ban by China on accepting certain types of plastic waste, which has meant 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 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. The Government has published a Standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics: call for evidence to inform better its understanding in this area.

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 types of single use plastic. The implications of this for the UK will depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, although the Government, under Prime Minister May, has previously stated that it supports this initiative and “will match or where economically practicable exceed the Directive’s ambition.”

UK Government ambitions and targets

The UK Government has 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.

Government proposals for change

In October 2018, the Government published a Consultation on proposals to ban the distribution and/or sale of plastic straws, plastic - stemmed cotton buds and plastic drink stirrers in England. On 22 May 2019 it confirmed that the ban would go ahead, starting from April 2020, subject to some specified exemptions.

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:

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.

The UK Government has also signed up to many international agreements aimed at reducing plastic in the marine environment. An example of this is the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance.

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, (including a number of supermarkets, retailers and manufacturers), 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 and related support activities.

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

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8515

Author: Louise Smith

Topics: Environmental protection, Local government, Pollution, Waste management

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