UK recycling unraveled: British Plastics Federation and Greenpeace contest circularity “progress”
18 Jul 2022 --- Opinions about the UK’s plastic recycling performance remain divided, with the British Plastics Federation (BPF) identifying “clear progress” toward circularity but Greenpeace warning that recycling efforts are failing and must now focus on plastic reduction.
The NGO and Everyday Plastic recently launched an investigation to understand the scale of plastic use in the UK. The Big Plastic Count took place for one week in May 2022, with participating consumers, including 36 MPs, recording how much and what type of plastic packaging they threw in the waste bin or recycling stream.
The results show that the UK’s recycling systems can’t cope with the amount of plastic packaging waste leaving households. It also shows only 12% of plastic packaging is likely to be recycled in the UK. Moreover, the UK generates the second most plastic waste per capita after the US.
However, BPF has questioned the survey results, highlighting that “there is clear progress that can be celebrated, although there is more work to be done.”
To better understand the conflicting opinions on the UK’s plastic recycling performance, PackagingInsights speaks to Stephen Hunt, BPF membership services director, and Nina Schrank, head of Greenpeace UK’s plastic campaign.
BPF points to the UK Environment Agency’s figures suggesting that 51% of plastic packaging in the UK was recycled in 2021, and that the amount of plastic recycled has increased 2.4 times since 2006. It also highlights that recycling plastic saves between 30-80% of the emissions generated by virgin plastic.
“Promoting the message that ‘recycling doesn’t work’ is unhelpful and could demotivate people from doing the right thing. Recycling does work,” stresses Hunt. Last year, outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson antagonized the plastics industry by claiming “recycling doesn’t work,” in contradiction to his own government policy.
How much waste does the UK export?
Citing figures from the National Packaging Waste Database, BPF notes that last year the UK recycled more of its plastic within the country than it exported for recycling, adding that this was the first time this has happened.
The organization argues there has been progress regarding the reduction of the amount of exported packaging waste since 2006.
Meanwhile, the amount of plastic packaging recycled within the UK has been increasing since 2016. According to the National Packaging Waste Database, in 2021, the UK recycled 592,783 metric tons of plastic within the country and exported 519,005 metric tons to be recycled. “That means out of all the plastic packaging that was recycled, 47% was exported for recycling, and 53% was recycled in the UK,” says Hunt.
On the contrary, the Greenpeace report found that only 12% of the collected plastic waste is likely to be recycled at UK reprocessing facilities. More of the UK’s plastic waste (17%) is being shipped overseas than recycled at home.
“The Big Plastic Count revealed the truth about the scale of waste coming out of UK homes and how little is actually recycled,” asserts Schrank.
A murky business
In response to BPF’s figures on waste export reduction, Schrank maintains that the global waste trade is a “murky business” and an “enormous illegal trade.”
“Export levels in 2019 were around the same as 2007 levels, so we are not seeing a particular improvement. There is no plan yet for how to deal with the tripling in plastic waste by 2060 as forecast recently by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and we can all agree that we shouldn’t be dumping our waste on other countries that don’t have the capacity to handle it,” she says.
“From a UK point of view, the murky business continues, given that the government counts exported waste as having been recycled. Yet our own investigations show that our number one export country, Turkey, has been dumping and burning the UK’s exported plastic waste across the Southern area of Adana,” continues Schrank.
“In 2020, 688,000 metric tons of plastic waste were exported, and with UK supermarkets failing to bring down their own levels of use, this grim picture does not look set to improve.”
Recycling versus reducing plastic
Hunt says the BPF Recycling Roadmap shows how the vast majority of plastic the UK uses could be recycled within the country by 2030, with only 1% going to landfill and very little exported, provided the right drivers are in place.
“To achieve this, a number of things need to change, including investing in the UK’s recycling infrastructure, simplifying household collection schemes across the country and collecting more plastic film and flexible packaging,” he explains.
When asked about Greenpeace’s position on the BPF’s Recycling Roadmap, Schrank says that “for too long industry and government have put recycling at the forefront of their efforts to tackle the plastic crisis, including a reliance on not yet working technologies, when clearly turning the tap off at source is the only true solution.”
“Single-use plastic is like confetti, we’re never going to be able to capture it all at this scale, and the trajectory on plastic production is huge growth. Like every part of the fossil fuel industry, producers are trying to argue that they will somehow be able to fix this problem while increasing production.”
“While recycling will continue to be a part of the puzzle, what’s really needed are sweeping reductions and shifts to reuse and refill systems at scale.”
“A truly circular economy is one that revolves around keeping packaging in circulation and out of the environment. We are calling for the government to legally mandate for a 50% reduction in single use plastic by 2025, which would create a level playing field for all retailers. This would also allow us to ban waste exports, and send significantly less to incineration and landfill,” she concludes.
Meanwhile, the UK’s Flexible Plastic Fund failed to pay out a single penny of the £1 million (approximately US$1.2 million) invested by major consumer goods retailers over a year ago, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Speaking to PackagingInsights, Megan Corton Scott, political advisor to Greenpeace UK, said the EIA’s discovery that the Fund has not delivered any of its pledged investment and is backed by a politician with a conflict of interest is unsurprising.
By Natalie Schwertheim
To contact our editorial team please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe now to receive the latest news directly into your inbox.