The Big Plastic Crisis – UK Households Discard 100bn Pieces of Plastic Packaging Annually, Report Shows

03 August 2022 by Lawrence Hallett
blog author

UK households are throwing away around 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging every year, with just 12 per cent being recycled in the country, according to a shocking new report.

The Big Plastic Count study was conducted by global campaigning network Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic,a research-led non-profit focused on evidence-based education and campaigns. The two organisationscollaborated to uncover the truth about household plastic waste, revealing how much is used and what happens to it afterwards, in what is claimed to be the UK’s biggest nationwide investigation into household plastic waste.

For one week in May, around 250,000 people from nearly 100,000 households took part in The Big Plastic Count – or one in every 262 UK households - which revealed just under 6.5 million pieces of plastic packaging waste was discarded in one week, underscoring the urgent need to tackle the country’s plastic crisis.

The data shows nearly a quarter of a million people from 97,948 UK households counted 6,437,813 pieces of plastic packaging waste, giving an average of 66 pieces of plastic packaging thrown away in one week per household - an estimated 3,432 pieces a year.

Based on the weekly average being typical of every UK household, it is a reasonable assumption that households dump 96.57 billion pieces of plastic packaging a year in the UK (1.85 billion pieces a week).

There is increased pessimism surrounding the data as it is likely the activity incentivised the consumption and disposal of less plastic as households were more mindful of their actions.

While specific brands were not monitored or put under the spotlight during The Big Plastic Count, food and drink packaging accounted for most of the waste generated during the count (83 per cent), which highlights supermarket giants as some of the key culprits.

The most counted offenders were fruit and vegetable packaging (1.02 million pieces),closely followed by snack bags, packets and wrappers (1.01 million pieces), demonstrating the challenge consumers face when trying to avoid plastic packaging– especially those with disabilities or restricted mobility who may rely on pre-prepared food for convenience.

Just 12 per cent of the waste is recycled at home while 17 per cent is shipped overseas and 46 per cent is incinerated, with the remaining 25 per cent buried in landfill.

The failure of recycling systems in the UK stems from a lack of kerbside collections for the majority of the discarded waste, with 62 per cent of the plastic waste either not commonly collected or poorly collected by local authorities.

Plastic film and soft plastics pose a recycling challenge and accounted for 57 per cent of the pieces thrown by respondents. Just 13 per cent of local authorities collect such problematic plastic which is usually limited to a small number of items such as carrier bags, bread bags, banana bags and toilet roll wrappers.

A recently launched take-back scheme has been rolled out nationwide throughout many supermarkets although this isn’t always an easy option for consumers.

The results of the report highlight that the UK currently relies on incinerators and landfill sites, which emit huge amounts of harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs) and air pollution, as well as exports. A total of 46 per cent of the UK’s plastic waste is destined for incineration, which emits millions of tonnes of CO2 annually.

As a result of the findings, Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic are urging the UK Government to ensure the following:

1.Set a target to almost entirely eliminate single-use plastic within 15 years

2.Ban plastic waste reports

3.Implement an all-in Deposit Return Scheme and introduce Extended Producer Responsibility

4.End approvals for new incineration facilities and prevent replacement/upgrade of old plants nearing retirement

The report concluded that the UK must stop relying on plastic and transition to alternatives. In addition, it needs to better position itself at the forefront of solutions to the plastic crisis if its world leader status for effective waste disposal is to be taken seriously. It is currently lagging with the delay of the government’s Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), along with the new Extended Producer Responsibility requirements, a concept that encouragescompanies to design more sustainable and recyclable products and manufacturing processes.

A spokesperson for Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic said: “Even with the most ambitious recycling infrastructure targets and investment, the UK waste system won’t be able to cope with the combination of more plastic production and the waste important bans ahead.”

Lawrence Hallett, Senior Consultant – Sustainable Business at Acre, said: “It is hard not to feel despondent when you read an article such as this. We rely so heavily on plastic in our everyday lives that turning the tide on plastic usage is always going to be an uphill battle, but one that is manageable.

“The end goal is to replace plastic with genuinely biodegradable materials which do not rely on imperfect infrastructure at end of life, but until we get to a stage where that can be produced and rolled out on a much larger scale, improving recycling infrastructure and education is of paramount importance. Organisations should do more to minimise plastic use in products and packaging. Half the battle is preventing plastic from getting into households in the first place.

“It would be refreshing to see the large corporations responsible for using so much plastic packaging, take a stronger stance on this and lead from the front. Acre has been working first-hand with organisations such as Podback, a coffee pod start-up backed by corporates to tackle the coffee pod recycling problem, as well as organisations attempting to reshape the industry, such as Xampla, a start-up which manufactures biodegradable material to replace flexible plastic packaging.

“If you’re looking for support to build out a team or have any questions about the current market, feel free to get in touch.”

Lawrence is a consultant within Acre's Sustainable Business team in the UK.  Lawrence has 5 years of recruitment experience, specialising in the Internal Audit space within Commerce & Industry. Here, he helped develop the company's profile, building strong relationships with new and existing clients. Lawrence has always been passionate about the natural world & sustainability, and holds a BSc in Geography with Environmental Studies from Southampton Solent University.