recycling plastic bottles

UK bins 100bn pieces of plastic annually amid calls to ban waste exports

Collectively, UK households throw nearly 100 billion pieces of plastic waste into the bin every year, a recent study has found.

With the UK estimated to produce the second-largest amount of plastic waste per capita, Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic have launched 'The Big Plastic Count', an investigation to get to grips with the scale of plastic use in the UK.

The survey took place for one week in May 2022, with participants recording how much plastic packaging, and of what type, they threw in the bin or put in the recycling.

Some 248,957 people from 97,948 households across the UK took part in the count including 9,427 school students and 36 MPs. The results were then submitted for analysis. 

On average, each household threw away 66 pieces of plastic packaging in one week, amounting to an estimated 3,432 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 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), illustrating how difficult it is for shoppers to avoid the packaging when purchasing these products.

Only 12 per cent of this plastic waste is likely to be recycled at reprocessing facilities in the UK. More of the UK’s plastic waste (17 per cent) is being shipped overseas than being recycled at home.

Furthermore, it is estimated that almost half of the UK’s household plastic packaging waste (46 per cent) is likely being incinerated, whilst the remaining 25 per cent is buried in landfill.

The authors of the report called on the government to set a target to almost entirely eliminate single-use plastic in 15 years and introduce mandatory corporate reporting on plastic reduction. They said that this should be accompanied by a target to reduce single-use plastic by 50 per cent by 2025.

Plastic waste exports should also be banned, starting with an immediate cessation of 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 report states.

Daniel Webb, founder of Everyday Plastic, described the Big Plastic Count as “an incredible piece of citizen science”.

“This is a big moment in the fight against plastic waste,” he said. “These new figures lay bare the responsibility of the government, big brands and supermarkets to tackle this crisis and they must rise to the challenge right now – there is no time to waste.”

Greenpeace UK plastics campaigner Chris Thorne called on the government to “turn off the plastic tap”.

“This is a jaw-dropping amount of plastic waste and should give ministers pause for thought,” he said. “Pretending we can sort this with recycling is just industry greenwash.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are going further to tackle single-use plastics through our landmark Environment Act. We have restricted the supply of plastic straws and cotton buds, banned the supply of plastic drinks stirrers and are finalising proposals to introduce a deposit return scheme which would capture plastic bottles.

“Packaging producers will be expected to cover the cost of recycling and disposing of their packaging through the introduction of extended producer responsibility, and this year we introduced a world-leading plastic tax to help tackle plastic waste.”

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