We are all familiar with the problem of plastic waste – which has a devastating effect on marine life and oceans. Plastic recycling seems complex and difficult and we are right to be concerned about the impacts waste plastic is having on our ecosystems. The One Bin to Rule Them All (One Bin) project team have spent the last three years exploring household plastic recycling – working with households in Greater Manchester, culminating in their new report Tackling Household Plastic Waste: Best Practice for a Circular Plastics Economy. In this article, Dr Helen Holmes discusses the report’s three best practice policy recommendations – the need to understand consumer practice to shape recycling infrastructure and policy; standardisation and consistency across the supply chain, and maximising value and sustainability of plastics via an open-source hierarchy of fates.
- In 2021 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in the UK, yet just 44.4% of that was recycled (DEFRA, 2022).
- It is clear is that whilst waste prevention should always be a priority, with reduction and reuse taking precedence (Keep Britain Tidy, 2023), recycling needs to be part of the solution.
- Policymakers need to engage with consumer practise, whilst also focussing on standardisation and consistency across the plastic supply chain.
The UK Plastic Policy Landscape
Over the last two years the UK government has announced a series of policies designed to tackle plastic waste. In short, these include policies, which place more emphasis on plastic producers such as the Plastic Packaging Tax, or Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Others focus on consumers through Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), where consumers are paid to return plastic bottles. There is also work being done to improve consistency in the sorts of waste local authorities will collect and recycle, alongside a proposed ban on the export of plastic waste by 2027.
However, despite this suite of policies, research from the One Bin project suggests that such policies may not be enough to tackle the huge scale and complexity of the plastic problem. Indeed, rather than providing solutions, such policies may actually create further challenges in an already overburdened and siloed plastic supply chain.
For example, the Deposit Return Scheme sets to remove a valuable ‘tried and tested’ waste stream from local authorities. Where the money generated from Extended Producer Responsibility or the Plastic Packaging Tax will be spent raises further questions.
Engaging with consumer practice to shape recycling infrastructure and policy
Future policy needs to start from an understanding of consumer practice. How consumers understand and negotiate recycling rules, how they determine which items go in which bin, and how plastic packaging is treated prior to disposal (e.g., lids on/off; washed or crushed) are crucial to designing effective plastic recycling policy.
Narratives of ‘blame the consumer’ for the failures of plastic recycling are damaging to future consumer buy-in and acceptance of recycling regimes. Encouraging and potentially rewarding good recycling practice, alongside clear, simple systems will increase recycling engagement rates. As will building on current alternative recycling pathways that consumers are already engaged in, such as neighbourhood Whatsapp group to share bin space or storing up soft flexible packaging (e.g., crisp packets, bread bags) to take to supermarket recycling schemes. Such opportunities could be explored by local authorities and underpinned by national policies.
Standardisation and consistency across the plastic supply chain
The current plastic packaging supply chain needs urgent national reform to create standardisation and consistency. Drawing on our interdisciplinary research, we advocate three core areas of reform – materials, infrastructure and messaging.
The complexity of current packaging materials limits recycling capacity. We advocate for clearer rules on material composition of packaging(e.g., polymer types, additives, colourings). We also recommend reducing contaminants such as additives and colourings, and that the design of packaging should be based on available infrastructure to deal with those materials.
Waste infrastructure is hugely variable across the UK – which impacts upon local waste policies and efficiency. There are over 391 local authorities in the UK with over 39 different bin collection regimes. Current infrastructure capability and capacity is a major barrier to recycling (EFRA, 2022). We argue for consistent kerbside collection across the UK of all plastic packaging e.g., same coloured bins, same items accepted and in the same state (lids on/off; washed/crushed). Targeted investment is needed in infrastructure to support consistent kerbside collection, reuse options and mechanical and chemical recycling.
Inconsistent communication about recycling plastics is a core and repeated issue. Our recommendations around messaging are that packaging labelling should be standardised in line with the rules of consistent collection. The roll out of WRAPs (2021) labelling guidance as part of the UK Plastics Pact Roadmap to 2025 (WRAP, 2022) for rigid plastic to all plastic packaging. There should be retailer agreement on messaging on packaging and complementing legislation and consistent messaging across all UK local authorities regarding disposal rules. Government should also support multi-channel mass marketing campaigns that encourage reuse, waste prevention and recycling.
Maximising the value and sustainability of plastics
To improve the sustainability of plastics to maximise material value, in-depth information about potential end-of-life fates for plastic waste should be considered across the supply chain.
To this end, we have developed an interactive tool with information and guidance on plastic waste. The hierarchy of fates allows for a clear overview of what choices and investments can lead to a more sustainable future.
The hierarchy enables nuanced decisions to be made about different types of packaging, considering polymer type, alongside the addition of additives and colourings.
It also highlights the need for specific targeted policy decisions such as removing certain contaminations that damage recycling and provide no sustainability benefit. Alongside illuminating areas where investment and large-scale collection can vastly improve the current situation, versus areas where legislation and restriction are the better tool for sustainable progress.
In sum, we call for government to support an overhaul of UK plastic policy to ensure the development of a sustainable circular economy of plastics. Our three best practice policy recommendations will help to achieve this. Our report can be used by local, regional and national policymakers to make changes to their current recycling policies. This might be local authorities considering how they can make their recycling messaging clearer to residents, regional plans to invest in waste infrastructure to collect and recycle more types of plastic packaging, or roll out of national policy to utilise the materials hierarchy to maximise the value and sustainability of plastic packaging. The report offers insight at all levels of policy and importantly provides recommendations across the supply chain from design through to disposal.
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