Greenpeace report claims ‘insurmountable’ obstacles to recycling

UK households are throwing away almost 100 billion items of plastic a year, according to an estimate published by environmental campaigners Greenpeace.

Greenpeace Big Plastic Count posters
During the week 16-22 May earlier this year, Greenpeace and it’s research partner Everyday Plastic asked 100,000 households in the UK to record on the amount of plastic they used and threw out as part of its Big Plastic Count initiative. In total, a reported 6,437,813 pieces of plastic packaging waste were discarded as waste or recycling, which when projected on a UK-wide basis, Greepeace says would be the equivalent to 1.85 billion pieces of plastic a week, or 96.57 billion pieces a year.

Greenpeace estimates that only 12 per cent of the UK’s plastic waste is recycled, with 17 per cent being exported, 25 per cent landfilled, and 46 per cent being incinerated.

Although the Big Plastic Count report notes that recycling is ‘an important component of plastic waste disposal’, it identifies ‘insurmountable’ obstacles to the process being the UK’s main solution – some forms of plastic aren’t recyclable ‘at all’, and recyclability of single-use plastics is ‘not infinite’. The usability of plastic once recycled is also questioned, with the report asserting that ‘most’ is of insufficient quality, being ‘downcycled’ into ‘crates, traffic cones, and fence posts.’

These estimates were calculated using data from RECOUP’s 2021 annual UK household plastic recycling survey. In order to use these findings, the collected data was translated into weight using averages from Everyday Plastic’s previous work.

According to Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic, current government strategy on plastic waste reduction is ‘incoherent’, citing delays to policies contained within the Resources and Waste Strategy 2018 and describing the Extended Producer Responsibility consultation response as ‘watered down’.

Although many of the conclusions from the Big Plastic Count are shared by specialist waste industry organisations, there is concern about the message downplaying the role of recycling as well as questions raised about the claimed recycling rate.

Responding to the report, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) said that it supported the growth of reuse systems in ‘cases where it makes clear sense to do so’, with the reduction of unnecessary waste being a strong priority. However, promoting the message ‘that recycling doesn’t work’, the trade association stated, is ‘unhelpful and could demotivate people from doing the right thing.’

“Recycling does work,” the BPF said in a statement. “Recycling plastic saves between 30 and 80 per cent of the carbon emissions generated by virgin plastic processing and manufacturing.”

The trade association asserted that most of the UK’s plastic waste could be recycled domestically by 2030, ‘provided the right drivers are in place’, citing investment in reprocessing infrastructure, the simplification of household collections, and the collection of more plastic film and flexible packaging as solutions.

“We are unsure how the claim that only 12 per cent of plastic is likely to be recycled at facilities within the UK was calculated and unfortunately the method used to reach this figure was not published,” they said.

“We do, however, feel the claim is questionable. When it comes to plastic packaging, official data from the Environment Agency’s National Packaging Waste Database shows that in 2021 49 oer cent of plastic packaging was recycled and more than half of that was recycled within the UK. The amount of plastic packaging recycled within the UK has actually been increasing since 2016.”

Helen Bird, Head of Business Collaboration at WRAP, said that Greenpeace’s findings mirror what WRAP already knows – that ‘there are times when there is still too much unnecessary plastic packaging on food, and especially on fruit and vegetables. This is a major obstacle to cracking the plastics crisis and is a priority for The UK Plastics Pact.’

She added: “We have identified where plastic packaging can be removed, including from fruit and vegetables, where there is also an opportunity to save food waste by enabling people to buy what they need.

“We need the retailers to act on this quickly and are working with them towards this, as well as on reuse and refill schemes which need to be made more accessible and attractive to shoppers, while being commercially scalable.

“Until these things become mainstream for shoppers, we still need to continue to recycle everything we can. It is encouraging that the UK now recycles more of its plastic packaging here than abroad, and over time we need to get this to 100 per cent.”

On the claim that recycling ‘doesn’t work’, Bird noted that ‘UK plastics recycling is far from perfect’, but that ‘the importance of recycling should not be dismissed in building a strong circular economy.’

Chief Executive of The Recycling Association Simon Ellin claimed that it was ‘irresponsible’ to say that ‘recycling doesn’t work’, and for ‘sowing seeds of doubt in the public mind.’

He said: "For decades we have seen products made from plastic that are hard to recycle, and that isn't the fault of the recycling system, but those who designed and made these products in the first place.

"Thankfully, many responsible companies are now seeing the benefit of single-polymer type packaging, or single fibre alternatives, and are moving in a direction of using easy-to-recycle materials.

"The Resources and Waste Strategy will mean companies will need to produce single material packaging and local authorities will need to collect them. When combined with the Plastics Packaging Tax that is already driving demand for recycled polymers, we have a situation that is leading to even more investment in recycling infrastructure.

Responsive to Greenpeace’s emphasis on waste reduction, Sian Sutherland, Co-founder of A Plastic Planet, said that ‘downcycling plastic’ draws attention away from ‘the real root of the problem’ – increasing plastic production. She continued: “If recycling was really the answer, why hasn't that industry built the system here in the UK? Instead, yesterday also witnessed yet another headline showing our UK plastic waste being dumped in Turkey.

“We urgently need to face the truth. Recycling is a diversionary tactic invented by the plastics industry decades ago to ensure they could continue to pump it out at source. The only answer to the disaster we have knowingly caused is a dramatic turn off of the plastic tap.”