Plastic has become part of everyday life, from bottles and bags to plastic pots and trays - our lives are full of it. We now use about 20 times more plastic than we did 50 years ago. Plastic is a useful material but we use a lot of it. By reusing and recycling it as many times as possible, we can reduce our need to create new plastic.
The recycling gap
In the UK, we recycle less than two thirds of our plastic bottles and less than a third of the plastic pots, tubs and trays. In North Yorkshire and York, even though all councils collect plastic bottles for recycling and many accepted other plastics too, there is still a lot of recyclable plastics left in the waste bin.
Where plastic ends up
Some of that plastic ends up polluting our environment. We all do our bit to recycle, but we can still do more. Most plastic waste in the UK doesn't end up in our oceans, but a lot is disposed of in our environment to be burned or buried in landfill sites. People are worried about its impact on nature, and they're right to be. 79% of the plastic waste ever created is still in our environment, leaving a legacy of plastic waste on our planet that will take years to put right.
Why we should recycle our plastic
There are a number of reasons why we should recycle our plastic:
- plastic is believed to take around 500 years to decompose
- additives in the plastic such as colorants, stabilisers and plasticisers which may contain toxic components such as cadmium and lead
- conservation of non-renewable fuels and energy
- the energy savings are sufficient to power a 60W light bulb for six hours, for each bottle recycled
- reduced emissions of CO2 and nitrogen oxide
A range of polluting single-use plastics have been banned in England.
The government has introduced legislation to ban the supply of single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, expanded and extruded polystyrene food and drinks containers, including cups, in England from October 2023:
- there is a ban on the supply of single-use plastic cutlery, balloon sticks, and single-use expanded and extruded polystyrene containers (see definition above), including cups
- the ban on ‘cutlery’ includes single-use plastic knives, forks, spoons and chopsticks made of plastic, including standard size or mini-size cutlery or a combination of cutlery, such as sporks
- there is a ban on the supply of single-use plastic plates, trays, and bowls - using single-use plastic plates to bowls and trays rather than reusable alternatives
- the ban on the supply of single-use plastic plates, trays, and bowls does not apply to plates, trays, and bowls that are used as packaging, in shelf-ready pre-packaged food items as defined in the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2015 regulation 3(b) (such as bowls and platters in a frozen meal) - this is to avoid duplication or confusion with proposals for an extended producer responsibility scheme (EPR) for packaging
- for clarity, plastic plates, bowls, and trays that are used as packaging can be used in eat-in and takeaway settings, however, businesses should explore how they can reduce the use of these single-use items and move to reusable alternatives instead
- the ban on the supply of plastic bowls and trays that are not packaging will be a ban on supply to the end user - this will allow businesses to purchase empty plates, bowls, and trays to use only as packaging for food; however, individuals will not be able to purchase these items
- compostable plastics must be sent to an industrial composter for them to compost, so if littered in the open environment they will act much like any other plastic, in addition, because they are visibly indistinguishable from non-compostable plastics, even when they are sent to industrial composters there is no guarantee that they will not be stripped out at the start of the process and sent to landfill or incineration plants
- as noted in the responses to a previous government call for evidence on this topic, there is currently insufficient industrial composting capacity in England to fully manage compostable plastic, so it would not be viable to exempt this material, risking improper treatment
The government brought these bans into force on 1 October 2023.
According to estimates, England uses 2.7 billion items of single-use cutlery, most of which are plastic and 721 million single-use plates per year, but only 10% are recycled. If 2.7 billion pieces of cutlery were lined up they would go round the world over eight and a half times (based on a 15cm piece of cutlery).
From October, people cannot buy these products from any business, this includes retailers, takeaways, food vendors and the hospitality industry.
Plastic cutlery, was in the top 15 most littered items in the country by count in 2020.
Previous bans, such as banning straws, stirrers and cotton buds, have reduced the damage from these plastics.
These plans build on previous efforts to eliminate avoidable plastic waste, including:
- bans on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products announced in 2018
- restrictions on the supply of single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds in 2020
- plastic packaging tax in April 2022 – a tax of £200 per tonne on plastic packaging manufactured in, or imported into the UK, that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic
- the minimum charge for a single use carrier bag was increased from 5p to 10p to all retailers in May 2021
Cutting through the confusion on plastic packaging
Clear on Plastics is a campaign by WRAP, the sustainability not-for-profit, and supported by The UK Plastics Pact. Clear on Plastics exists to cut through the confusion and give clear, evidence-based information on plastics and sustainability, allowing them to make their own informed choices.
Their aim is to give people clear information about the complex world of plastics, waste and recycling – for instance, explaining the role of plastics, and demonstrating the balance between the benefits and drawbacks of alternatives.