13 JULY, 2022

When discussing plastic some people justify their purchases’ stating  that plastic can be recycled. But plastic can only be recycled a certain number of times and the sad truth is that less than 10% of every day plastic is recycled in the UK. Some ‘problematic plastics’ can never be recycled and end up in landfill or in our seas. Recycling plastic also uses up energy. 

shampoo bar in paper bag

Plastic has been found in the remotest parts of our oceans, from the deepest sea bed on Earth to Artic sea ice. 59 billion pieces of single use plastic packaging leave supermarket shelves each year (1) and every minute an equivalent of a truck load of plastic is tipped into our oceans. Large pieces ensnare the oceans wild life while smaller micro-plastics are entering the food chain and now for the first time in March 2022 a Dutch study has found micro-plastics in human tissue.

Figures on how much plastic waste the UK produces each year are inconsistent. Government reports on plastic production have been questioned by reputable organisations such as World Wildlife Fund and the charity WRAP (wrap.org.uk). We may never know the true figure. (2,3,4)

Government recycling statistics again are at odds with WWF a position backed up by the National Audit Office who felt that government estimates are ‘not sufficiently robust’ (5)

Where does all this plastic go? 

The UK produces more plastic than we can handle, resulting in us either burning it or exporting it to poorer countries who also burn it or worse, just tip it straight into the sea.

In 2018 the decision by China to ban imports of certain types of recycling waste led to UK exports of plastic waste to China falling by almost 90%.

 In 2020 the most important export destinations were Turkey, Malaysia and Poland.

Year on year Turkey has been expanding the amount of plastic waste taken from the UK. UK exports to Turkey increased from 12,000 tonnes in 2016 to 209,642 tonnes in 2020, equalling about 30% of the UK’s plastic waste exports(10). Greenpeace examined 10 locations in Southern Turkey and found plastic packaging from Tescos, Asda, Co-op, Aldi, Sainsbury, Lidl and Marks&Spencer. Waterways were found with our plastic waste, heading for the ocean, with beaches littered with our discarded wrapping. 

Progress is slow but since 2018 there is 10% less plastic on supermarket shelves and a reduction of 48% of ‘problematic plastics’.This needs to be speeded up. Supermarkets, food producers and governments all have a responsibility to reduce the amount of plastic used in the UK. 

The message is not to stop recycling but to be aware that in the UK our recycling capacity is woefully inadequate and much ends up being inefficiently incinerated or sent abroad to be dumped on other peoples’ land and eventually make its way into the sea.

 So if we want the next generation to swim in crystal clear waters and our sea life not to live on a diet of micro-plastics, the answer is to make an effort and not purchase plastic in whatever form. The circular economy makes sense environmentally using and / or recycling  what is already out there, but producing more plastic does not. 

1. https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/whats-answer-plastic-problem/

2. Jan 2020 -https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/


4. https://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/WRAP_Plastics_market_situation_report.pdf

5.  https://www.nao.org.uk/report/the-packaging-recycling-obligations/

6. https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/


8. https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2018/06/Save-the-oceans.pdf



useful resources / references to above article. 




 Written by Dr Tina Grayson

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