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The Big Count: clock is ticking for plastic waste – how to fix it?

A total of 250 000 UK citizens participating in The Big Plastic Count report throwing away almost 6.5 million pieces of plastic packaging in just one week.

UK households used an average of 66 pieces of plastic packaging in the week they filled out the survey. This amounts to almost 3 500 pieces a year. ‘If the totals for count week are assumed to be typical, this indicates that UK households are throwing away an estimated 1.85 billion pieces a week, or 96.57 billion pieces a year,’ the report says.

Only 12% recycled?

Around 62% of the pieces of plastic recorded in the count are either not collected or poorly collected for recycling by UK local authorities. ‘The material will likely to end up in landfill or get incinerated,’ according to Greenpeace and Every Plastics, who commissioned the study.

They observe that almost half of the UK’s household plastic packaging waste (46%) is incinerated, with the remaining 25% sent to landfill. Recent statistics indicate that only 12% of this plastic waste is likely to be recycled at reprocessing facilities in the UK. More of the UK’s plastic waste (17%) is being shipped overseas than being recycled at home.

The most commonly counted items were fruit and vegetable packaging (1.02 million pieces), closely followed by snack bags, packets and wrappers (1.01 million pieces). ‘The numbers illustrate how difficult it is for shoppers to avoid packaging when purchasing these products,’ the report says.

Industry feedback

Many recyclers took issue with how the figures were presented, arguing that higher recycling rates are possible once collection infrastructure is improved. ‘If 62% of the material is not collected or collected poorly, then presumably only 38% was of material was properly collected for recycling. Does this not mean that the actual problem is mainly around collection of plastics?’ comments Alan Wheeler, ceo of the Textile Recycling Association.

‘Or is it that there are still too many different plastics that are difficult to recycle and have to put in the general waste bin? Either way, the figures provided by this report seem to suggest that if the plastic is collected properly, there is a reasonably good chance that it will be recycled properly,’ he notes. ‘Am I missing something?’

Moreover, the bulk of the material was made up of un-recyclable packaging, such as candy wraps and chips packets. This opens the door to the question what producers are doing to put more recycling-friendly packaging on the market.

‘I really don’t think the study shows that recycling doesn’t work, what it shows is what we already knew, which is that some plastics are very difficult and not cost-effective to recycle,’ observes WasteAid advisor Zoë Lenkiewicz. ‘It will be a real shame if this impacts participation and capture rates after all the work that’s gone into behaviour change over the last two decades.’

Simon Ellin, chief executive at the Recycling Association, goes so far as to call the message that recycling is not doing its job ‘irresponsible’.

Four suggested measures are recommended:

  • Setting a target to almost entirely eliminate single-use plastic in 15 years and introducing mandatory corporate reporting on plastic reduction.
  • The government must ban plastic waste exports, starting with an immediate ban on all exports to non-OECD member countries and mixed plastic waste to OECD member countries. A complete ban should be in place by no later than 2025.
  • The government should implement an all-in Deposit Return Scheme covering drinks containers for recycling and reuse. The scope of materials and deposit levels should be consistent across the UK.
  • The government must follow Scotland and Wales and end approvals for new incineration (also called ‘energy-from-waste’) facilities and prevent the replacement or upgrade of old plants that are near retirement, in order to support an overall reduction in incineration.

The study was completed in May with the help of almost 100 000 UK households from across the country, notes Simon Webb, founder of Everyday Plastic. ‘What began as a little experiment five years ago has grown far beyond what I imagined to be possible. The Big Plastic Count shows that the public understands the scale of the problem and wants to see ambitious action,’ he says. ‘The government and industry must rise to the challenge right now – there’s no time to waste.’

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