Community clean-up report highlights extent of single-use litter

Community clean-up non-profit Plastic Patrol has published the initial findings from a study into single-use litter in the UK, revealing that 83 per cent of litter recorded over a nine-month period was plastic.

Volunteers recording litter on the Plastic Patrol app

Between 5 April and 31 December 2019, volunteers across the country collected litter and uploaded photographs to the non-profit’s mobile app, categorising the item by type and brand.

Out of the 64,913 pieces of litter recorded, plastic made up the majority of items categorised, followed by metal (eight per cent) and glass (four per cent). The top ten most frequently found types of litter were:

  • Plastic packaging (21 per cent)
  • Plastic fragments larger than 2.5cm (10 per cent)
  • Cigarette butts (nine per cent)
  • Plastic bottles (nine per cent)
  • Drinks cans (seven per cent)
  • Polystyrene/Styrofoam (six per cent)
  • Plastic bags (six per cent)
  • Plastic bottle lids (five per cent)
  • Fishing net, rope and pieces (five per cent)
  • Glass bottles (four per cent)

Coca-Cola, Cadbury, Walkers, Mars and Tesco were found to be the top five most polluting brands, although 85 per cent of plastic bags recorded were unbranded, indicating that they may have been handed out by small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) which are exempt from the current five pence plastic bag charge.

Commenting on the report, Lizzie Carr, Founder of Plastic Patrol, said: “These results, obtained across the UK over nine months, serve as a crucial wake-up call to us all. It is clear that now is the time for government, industry and individuals to step up our ambitions and act accordingly to tackle the single-use litter crisis, which continues despite increasing awareness.”

As data was crowdsourced manually by volunteers rather than rigorous statistical sampling, the results are a reflection of areas where people have been motivated to take action, rather than where litter is spatially distributed across the UK.

Professor Janine Illian, Chair in Statistical Sciences at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Glasgow, commented: “With nearly 65,000 pieces of litter recorded by volunteers for Plastic Patrol, this report highlights the potential of crowdsources data and its importance in not only informing us about the extent of the single-use litter crisis, but also the complex challenges for statistical and interdisciplinary research alike.”

Changes to single-use policy

In light of the recent reintroduction of the Environment Bill, which proposes mechanisms to introduce charges on a range of single-use items, Plastic Patrol’s report makes a series of recommendations for the UK Government, including an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime, a deposit return scheme (DRS) and a nationwide ban on the sale of plastic bags.

With regards to an EPR, which is set to be introduced for packaging by 2023, the report recommends that a ‘data-driven regulatory and monitoring framework’ is set up to ensure fair distribution of costs between producers, including a mechanism to track materials throughout the system.

Whilst the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy has proposed the introduction of a DRS for single-use drinks containers, Plastic Patrol recommends that the DRS goes beyond drinks containers to include all single-use materials and container types and sizes.

The report favours an ‘all-in’ DRS rather than an ‘on-the-go’ model that would accept items more commonly purchased outside of the house, such as disposable coffee cups. However, although an ‘all-in’ DRS for drinks containers is set to be introduced in Scotland in 2021, and is the model favoured by former Environment Secretary Michael Gove, several concerns have been raised over the impact that this will have on existing kerbside collection systems and on small businesses.

Carr explained: “This report makes a number of recommendations, including a nationwide ban on plastic bags, and a call for clearer producer responsibilities. We are encouraged to see that there are powers to introduce extended producer responsibility schemes in the Environment Bill, but the devil will be in the detail to see how they are implemented.

“We will therefore be monitoring the Environment Bill closely as it makes its way through Parliament. This five-year series of reports by Plastic Patrol will be essential for assessing the adequacy of policy interventions and industry’s sustainability commitments in an important decade for environmental protection.”

Whilst governments and businesses are taking action to transition away from single-use plastics, with members of the UK Plastics Pact pledging to remove eight unnecessary items by the end of 2020, some have warned that alternative materials can also have a damaging impact – a recent report from think tank Green Alliance highlighted that companies are facing increased pressure to swap to materials such as paper and glass which may not necessarily be better for the environment.

You can read the report, ‘Extent of single-use litter in the UK’ on the Plastic Patrol website.

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