The world has become dependent on plastics in recent decades due to their relatively cheap production costs, durability, and incredible versatility. However, huge amounts of plastic products become waste, often thrown out after just one use. Plastic waste has become a major environmental issue worldwide, with the United Kingdom playing a substantial role in this problem.
It is estimated that UK households throw away a staggering 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging a year, averaging 66 items per household per week. In 2021, 2.5 million metric tons of plastic packaging waste were generated in the UK.
The Netherlands is now the main destination for UK plastic waste, importing almost one-quarter of shipments in 2022. The UK lacks the infrastructure to deal with the enormous amounts of plastic waste it produces each year, so it has relied on exports for many years. Recent bans and restrictions on waste imports by countries such as China has placed increased pressure on how the UK manages its waste and its government has been urged to invest in recycling infrastructure and new recycling technologies.
The war on plastic waste pollution
Plastics can take centuries to decompose, which is why there are growing concerns in the UK about plastic waste pollution. The UK government has introduced several policies in a bid to combat the scourge of plastic waste, such as the single-use carrier bag charge. This has significantly reduced the number of single-use plastic carrier bags issued by supermarkets. There have been calls for a ban on other problematic single-use plastics, such as cutlery, plates, stirrers, and coffee cups, with Scotland becoming the first part of the UK to implement such a ban. As of October 1, 2023, these materials will also be banned in England. A deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers is also to be introduced across the UK, although its implementation has been pushed to 2025, due to the cost-of-living crisis.
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Research lead covering environment and sustainability