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.Jump to full report >>
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.
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 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 items of single use plastic. The implications of this for the UK may depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and any relevant provisions in any future trade deal.” In December 2019 the European Commission published a European “Green Deal”. A new circular economy action plan will be produced, to include further action on plastics.
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:
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 stated 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.
Proposals on a deposit return scheme, consistency in recycling and reform of the extended producer responsibility systems were included in the Johnson Government’s October 2019 Environment Bill 2019-20. The Bill passed second reading, but fell at Dissolution for the 2019 General Election. For further information see Library briefing paper Commons Library Analysis of the Environment Bill 2019-20, 24 October 2019. The December 2019 Queen’s Speech background briefing notes indicated that a new Environment Bill would be introduced in this session covering these areas.
Previous UK Governments have 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.
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:
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.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-8515
Author: Louise Smith