Less than 10% of plastic packaging waste is recycled or reused globally with the remaining 90% being buried, burnt or discarded, often with catastrophic consequences for the natural environment and marine life. In this article, John Barwise argues that dealing with plastic waste requires a collective response and highlights a number of ways businesses and consumers can all get involved.

Plastics are part of everyday life and will continue to play an essential role in the future. Shopping bags, food and drinks packaging, clothing, carpets and other textiles, computers, vehicle components, hospital equipment and even bank notes, all contain plastics of one kind or another. The production of plastics has increased substantially over the last 60 years from around 0.5 million tonnes globally in the 1950s to over 300 million tonnes today.

Plastics are durable, strong, lightweight and water resistant and generally require less energy to produce and transport than other materials doing the same job. In Europe alone, the plastics industry, which includes plastics producers, plastics converters and the plastics machinery accounts for an estimated 1.6 million jobs and has a combined turnover in excess of €300 billion.

The downside is that plastic polymers are made from non-renewable fossil fuels and, because they do not degrade easily, they can cause serious harm to wildlife and the natural environment. And the problem is getting much worse. In a recent report commissioned by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), the UK uses 13 billion plastic bottles every year, of which only 7.5 billion are recycled, with the remaining 5.5 billion being either landfilled, littered, or incinerated.

There are also possible side effects from some chemicals used to improve the performance of plastics. Additives, such as lead and tributyltin in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), for example, are potentially toxic, and there is some concern about the possible adverse health effects of additives such as plasticisers (phthalates) and bisphenol A (BPA) that can leach out of plastic containers.

Change is coming

The durability of plastics and their potential for diverse applications, including widespread use as disposable items, are well understood, but the problems associated with waste management and the ever-increasing amount of plastic debris that litters the planet has been largely ignored, both in the UK and elsewhere — until quite recently.

However, things are beginning to change. Spurred on by the Blue Planet programme which highlighted the dangers of plastic debris to the environment and marine life, there is a growing sense of awareness and urgency to finding solutions to the universal problem of plastic waste.

In January, the Government banned the manufacturing of products containing microbeads — tiny particles that attract toxic substances which end up in rivers and seas, where they pollute fish and other marine life. Under the regulations, manufacturers will no longer be able to add microbeads to rinse-off toiletries such as face scrubs, toothpastes and shower gels. The ban on the manufacture of products will be followed by a ban on the sale of such products later this year.

On plastic packaging, China’s universal ban on imports of plastics and other materials has raised concerns about a stockpile of plastic waste in the UK. Recycling plants have been exporting around 500,000t of plastic for recycling in China every year, but now the trade has been stopped. This is proving problematic for the waste exporters, who are competing with other countries to find alternative markets for plastics and other waste materials.

Simon Ellin, Chief Executive UK Recycling Association, described the situation as a “game changer”. He told the BBC he had no idea how the problem would be solved in the short term. But in the long term, the shortage of export markets for plastic could help foster a wider UK-based recycling and reuse market.

Government plans

Announcing the Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan earlier this year, the Prime Minister Theresa May promised to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042 and confirmed the 5p plastic bag charge would be extended to all shops. The Government says it will also encourage supermarkets to introduce plastic-free aisles, and require industry to take more responsibility for the environmental impacts and recycling of their products. In November last year, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, said he would investigate new charges to tackle plastic pollution, although the Treasury has yet to confirm, or even to consult, on what those charges might be.

Elsewhere, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) announced it is seeking evidence on single-use plastic packaging as a way of reducing the dumping of takeaway drinks and food containers. A new independent task group will examine specific voluntary and/or regulatory interventions that can reduce the incidence of commonly littered items and improve recycling and reuse of packaging.

However, EAC says the Government needs to act now and has accused Defra of “dragging its feet” over plastic waste. Committee Chair, Mary Creagh said MPs were “shocked” that the UK unnecessarily uses over seven billion plastic water bottles every year. “Producers, not the taxpayer, should pay for costs of recovering hard to recycle packaging. A UK-wide deposit-return scheme is a crucial next step to turn back the plastic tide,” she added.

Collective action

In an open letter on Plastic Waste and Recycling Strategy, WRAP’s CEO Marcus Gover says dealing with plastic waste requires a collective response. “We can only make progress if we all work together — plastic producers, packaging manufacturers, food and drink manufacturers, retailers, brands, local authorities, waste companies, recyclers and Government.” Gover identified four areas where action is needed.

  1. Action by businesses to change how they design and use plastic packaging.

  2. Action by Government to reform the plastic packaging producer responsibility regulation.

  3. Action by local authorities and the recycling sector to increase the quantity and quality of plastic packaging collected for recycling.

  4. Action by citizens to change how they use and dispose of plastic packaging.

Business action

WRAP has set up a Circular Plastics Commitment which aims to encourage businesses to consider ways to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging. This is a joint initiative with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), whereby major retailers, brands, plastic packaging suppliers and other signatories would commit to finding ways to eliminate unnecessary and problematic single-use plastic packaging, ensure all plastic packaging is practically recyclable and aim to use recycled plastic in packaging and products where possible.

In January this year, Iceland became the first major retailer to commit to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own branded products. An open letter signed by former chiefs of Asda, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, and Argos, along with current bosses at Debenhams and Weleda, said plastic-free aisles would be good for business.

The change of heart by major retailers and others is, in part, a response to new research which showed that over one-third of consumers base their purchasing decisions on the social and environmental impact of the products they buy. A survey conducted by Populus and commissioned by WRAP’s campaign programme, A Plastic Planet also found that 9 out of 10 people would like supermarkets to introduce a “plastic-free aisle”.

“It is therefore essential that retailers and packaging manufacturers work together to turn off the tap of throwaway packaging. Retailers should take advantage of the raft of zero-plastic packaging solutions that provide a real alternative to conventional plastic,” the letter says.

Others are less convinced. In its response to the Plastic Planet survey, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) points out that plastic packaging helps increase shelf life of perishable foodstuffs, uses less energy to produce than alternatives and reduces transport costs and CO2 emissions because it is much lighter than other materials. According to BPF, plastics are a reusable resource that need to be disposed of responsibly and recycled whenever possible and the focus should be more on reducing littering and improving the UK’s recycling infrastructure.

Government waste policies and PRNs

The Government is under growing pressure to change the current packaging producer responsibility regime, including fast-tracking changes to the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) to support domestic reprocessing of plastics rather than overseas reprocessing.

PRNs are needed by all businesses in the UK that have a turnover in excess of £2 million and handle more than 50t of packaging. When demand for PRNs is higher than supply, then the value of PRNs goes up which encourages more reprocessing or exporting to take place to fill the shortfall.

According to letsrecycle, the Chinese restrictions have been branded “good news” by some in the industry, particularly domestic sorters as there is now a “larger pool to choose from”. Plastic PRN prices made strong gains in 2017, and recycling was higher than in 2016, which is good news to some waste management companies, including Veolia, Viridor and Biffa who have all invested substantially in new plastics sorting facilities in the UK.

Mary Creagh MP, Chair of EAC, stressed the importance of the value of waste for stimulating the UK end markets, arguing that the Government should invest in more reprocessing facilities at home, reuse these valuable materials, create green jobs and prevent plastic and paper pollution.

Mr Gover’s letter suggests that changes to the PRN system are likely. WRAP and INCPEN have consulted with a range of stakeholders “across the value chain” who suggest that there is “widespread support” for change to the current packaging producer responsibility regime. UK plastic packaging reprocessing has almost doubled since 2010, while the growth of exports has been much slower.

Roger Baynham, Chairman of the BPF’s Recycling Group: “We have previously proposed changes to the current PRN system, aiming to increase reprocessing within the UK, including split plastic packaging recycling targets to ensure that more evidence would have to come from local recyclers rather than exporters.”

Local authority plastics collections

Plastic recycling charity RECOUP has highlighted the need to invest in kerbside recycling collections infrastructure and communications. According to RECOUP, the “milestone” of collecting half a million tonnes of plastics packaging from UK households was achieved for the first time in 2016.

WRAP’s 2016 Plastics Market Situation Report shows significant improvements have been made by local authorities, the recycling industry and other parts of the supply chain towards achieving a circular economy for plastics. This includes a sharp increase in plastic bottle recycling and the introduction of mixed plastic recycling collections by the majority of local authorities.

The largest component of the municipal plastic bottle waste stream is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) with around 400,000t arising in the UK in 2014. At current collection rates, around 60% of PET bottles are currently collected for recycling by local authorities, leaving around 40% that are burned, disposed or discarded. The report also points out that end market for recovered non-bottle rigid plastic, often used in food packaging, is a particular cause of concern and more needs to be done by brands, manufacturers, local authorities and reprocessors alike.

WRAP, together with the BPF, RECOUP and others, have set up the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan (PIRAP) with the aim of building co-operation across the waste plastics supply chain, including local authorities, waste management companies, plastics reprocessors, compliance schemes and businesses. Its latest strategy Proposal for Growth of the UK Plastics Recycling Sector in a Circular Economy 2017 is designed to ensure end-of-life quality waste plastics are successfully recycled into sustainable second life applications.

Consumer action

Recycle Now, the national campaign managed by WRAP, has unveiled a series of hard-hitting digital images and messages aimed at encouraging consumers to recycle more and prevent plastic waste from damaging the environment. The campaign, A Plastic Planet calls on consumers to close the “plastic gap” which indicates that over 40% of plastic bottles are not recycled in the UK, despite 99% of local authorities collecting bottles at kerbside and increased public appetite to generally recycle more.

Director of WRAP’s Government Programmes, Peter Maddox, said WRAP is meeting the plastic challenge head on, addressing its use across the whole industry, as well as in the homes of citizens, to create sustainable solutions.

“It’s great to see so much momentum behind the fight against plastic waste from the public. Recycle Now is taking the challenge to them. We are exploring how we can further engage consumers with plastics as part of this, and are keen to use that campaign to explain the value of packaging as well as how to recycle it,” he added.

The “greener lifestyles” charity, Hubbub, is offering practical and realistic solutions to help people cut waste. The group’s high-profile “Square Mile Challenge” launched in April last year, succeeded in collecting and recycling half a million coffee cups in the City of London. To date, the campaign has collected over four million coffee cups and the trend looks set to continue.

Its award-winning Neat Streets anti-littering campaign, which targeted Westminster, Edinburgh, Manchester and other cities, used the latest behaviour change research to tackle littering behaviours. From flash mobs to talking bins, and from naked bin men to chewing gum art, Hubbub has tried many different playful ways to reduce litter and is constantly refining its approach and testing new ideas. Commenting in the charity’s campaign success, CEO Trewin Restorick said: “We have demonstrated that the public will recycle providing the infrastructure exists and the communications are compelling.”

The accumulation of plastic waste both in the UK and elsewhere is well known, so too are the many problems associated with the debris they create and the harm caused to the natural environment. What’s new is the shift of emphasis away from the blame culture to one of shared responsibility where consumers, charities, trade bodies and businesses across the supply chain can work in tandem to deliver collective action to reduce plastic waste. And, provided the Government can deliver a clear policy framework, there is no reason why this approach can’t be rolled out across the waste management sector. A commitment to the principles of a Circular Economy that decouples economic growth from the consumption of finite resources across the whole industry sector would be a good start.

Last reviewed 2 March 2018