The Future of Plastic in the UK

24 March 2022
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The past three decades have seen a monumental shift in the way we look at and treat plastic products. The public is armed with more and more knowledge each day about the danger of single-use plastics, and the demand for them to be phased out grows stronger with it. Here are some of the positives that have taken place in relation to the reduction of waste and plastics use in recent years:

  • In the UK, the amount of waste collected by local authorities that’s sent to landfill has reduced by over 90% compared to 2001.
  • Since the introduction of the charge for plastic bags in supermarkets in 2015, plastic bag usage has fallen by over 95%.
  • Between 1990 and 2019, the UK waste management sector’s production of greenhouse gas emissions has fallen by around 70%, something we’re proud to say we have contributed towards.

 With that said, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Existing legislation such as the Environment Bill and the Resources & Waste Strategy, as well as upcoming legislation such as the Plastic Packaging Tax, will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of plastic waste. Here, the Zest Recycle team will be taking a closer look at each of these pieces of legislation and the effects that they are having, and are going to have, on plastic waste in the UK.

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The Environment Bill

Introduced in January 2020, The Environment Bill was intended to help bring about an urgent response to the environmental issues we’re faced with and introduce long-term, legally-binding targets that give us something to work towards as a nation.

Here are some of the ways that the Environment Bill will influence the future of plastic waste here in the UK:

  • Sustainable production: Due to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), we can expect companies to be held far more accountable for the end-of-life costs of dealing with their plastic products. That is, if companies aren’t creating plastic products that fit with our circular economy, then it will ultimately be them who has to pay. Currently, EPR only applies to product packaging, but in the future this policy is likely to include the products themselves. Of course, this is all in place to incentivise manufacturers to produce more sustainable products.
  • Further bans on single-use plastics: On top of the items already on the ban list, single-use plastic plates, cups and cutlery will be banned in England. Given that the average person uses around 18 plastic plates and 37 plastic knives, spoons and forks each year, this could have a significant impact. It’s also worth noting that these bans will become more severe, and could ultimately extend to single-use items in general – not just plastics.
  • Deposit return schemes: Like the Pfand system in Germany, the UK could also see a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles be introduced here in the future. The idea is you pay a deposit on plastic or glass items in the supermarket, and when you take the empty bottles to a machine (usually at that same supermarket), you can dispose of the bottles and get your deposit back.
  • More power to the consumer: Thanks to the Environment Bill, as well as EPR, we can also expect emphasis to be placed on the consumer when it comes to making decisions that support the sustainable products market. For example, products that are durable, repairable or easily recyclable will be labelled as such so that consumers can easily identify them. We can also expect more charges to be put in place for single-use plastic items in order to further incentivise consumers to live more sustainably.

Resources and Waste Strategy

Initially introduced late in 2018, the Resources and Waste Strategy is all about helping the UK transition to a more circular economy. It’s split into eight different chapters and covers a wide variety of topics, including: sustainable production, innovation, waste crime and resource recovery.

Here’s how the Resources and Waste Strategy is already shaping the future of plastic waste:

  • Encouraging ecodesign: One of the key problems with the way we view plastic at the moment is that we see the material itself as inherently bad, when this isn’t necessarily the case – it just doesn’t currently fit into any sort of circular economy. Plastic can fit into a sustainable world, the products just need to be designed with an eco-first mindset, and need to be easily repairable and reusable. 

This particular point is further reinforced through the UK Plastics Pact, where businesses and government bodies have come together to ensure that problematic plastics are eliminated and eco-friendly plastic products are championed.

  • Driving circularity through warranties and a second-hand market: In order to build towards a more circular economy, manufacturers will be encouraged to start using second-hand materials to create new products. To support this, the potential for a National Materials “Datahub” has been announced that will provide manufacturers with comprehensive data about the availability and quality of second-hand materials. 

Alongside this, we can also expect manufacturers to start introducing mandatory guarantees and extended warranties on products in order to promote reuse and repair.

Plastic Packaging Tax

Coming into force in April of this year (2022), the Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT) will ensure that businesses producing or importing packaging made of predominantly virgin plastics (that is, less than 30% of it is recycled plastic) will have to pay tax on it.

The rate of PPT will be £200 per metric tonne on all plastics that can be seen as chargeable, however, there will be some exemptions. While this isn’t a particularly high rate, the tax itself isn’t designed to generate large tax revenues; instead, the goal is to change manufacturer behaviour and ultimately reduce the amount of virgin plastics used in plastic packaging in the long run.

Alongside the legislation that’s already in place, the Plastic Packaging Tax could well prove to be an important moment in the move towards a more sustainable, more circular future.

Want some advice about how you as a business can reduce your plastic waste? Here are some tips from us:

  • Start by auditing your waste streams to get a better idea of exactly what sort of plastic waste is being generated and in what volume.
  • Of the plastic waste being generated, is there any scope to change anything to a reusable alternative, like water cups or food packaging? Perhaps you could source some items that are made from recycled plastics.
  • For any final plastics that end up in the waste stream and cannot be avoided, are you making sure that they are being recovered in a dry mixed recycling scheme or, if produced in large quantities, collected separately and baled up.

If you would like to learn about how Zest Recycle is helping businesses all over the UK manage their waste more efficiently and harness it as a resource, all you have to do is get in touch. We’re dedicated to helping all kinds of companies, big and small, and developing unique, sustainable solutions to longstanding problems.


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