UK consistently overestimates plastic packaging recycling rates says report

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 6 March 2018

Waste consultancy and member of the MS Marine Litter Action Network, Eunomia, has published a new report which reveals the UK is consistently overestimating how much of the plastic packaging waste it produces gets recycled.

As far as we are aware there is no accurate figure available to say how many actual drinks bottles are collected for recycling

Dr Sue Kinsey,
MCS Senior Pollution Policy Officer

One major issue highlighted in the report is that when material is ‘placed on the market’ it is clean, dry and free from extraneous material such as labels. However, when the quantity collected for recycling is measured, the weight is likely to be inflated by the inclusion of moisture and contaminants. That might be the source of some of the over-reporting.

MCS is among a number of green campaigners urging ministers to adopt deposit return schemes on drinks containers - which already run successfully across a number of European countries. Scotland is already on the road to implementing a scheme. .

DRS will mean that recycling figures will be based on real numbers not estimates but the packaging industry is urging ministers to stick with the current Packaging Recovery Note scheme which obliges them to purchase a credit note from a recycling firm to contribute to improving processes. The industry says this is cheaper.

Dr Sue Kinsey, MCS Senior Pollution Policy Officer, says the report comes as no surprise: “VALPAK, which helps businesses comply with the Packaging Waste Regulations admits that their 74% figure of drinks containers recycled, actually includes milk bottles and milk drinks such as probiotic drinks which are not normally included in DRS. So using this figure as an argument against DRS is a nonsense.

“As far as we are aware there is no accurate figure available to say how many actual drinks bottles are collected for recycling, and of course the number actually recycled, as the report highlights, will be lower due to contamination issues. It’s also important to note that DRS would not only collect plastic bottles but would deal with glass bottles and drinks cans as well.”

Another problem highlighted in the report is that the UK packaging producer responsibility system is designed simply to deliver compliance with recycling target at the lowest possible cost to industry. In some other European countries, producers meet the full cost of household recycling systems: the report suggests that the UK system means that businesses cover at most 10% of the cost of providing the household recycling service they rely on to deliver compliance – a small fraction of the £2.8bn burden on local authorities of dealing with waste.

In the UK, official data on the quantity of plastic packaging placed on the market is derived from data from producer “compliance schemes” rather than being produced independently. The report points out that the lower the figure for the packaging placed on the market is, the lower the amount of material that needs to be recycled in order to meet the targets, keeping down the costs of compliance to industry.

Eunomia Chairman, Dominic Hogg, said it’s not really surprising to find that the UK’s recycling rate for plastics is not as good as is claimed: “The scheme supports the reporting of compliance at low cost, rather than achieving high quality recycling of plastic packaging. The disparities between datasets indicate that the existing scheme gives a weak foundation on which to base the recycling figures. The existing system of producer responsibility is failing. It has allowed problems with plastic packaging to grow, and it in its most basic responsibility – demonstrating compliance with a target – the data cannot be trusted.”

Actions you can take

  1. Take your own reusable bottle out and about
  2. Survey showing public support
  3. See our map of reported bottle sightings
  4. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2019
  5. Report your #wildbottlesighting using our form
  6. Learn about Deposit Return Systems
  7. Join the Plastic Challenge
  8. Help us stop the plastic tide

Did you know?…

UK Seas provide us with resources from fish to renewable marine energy

Over time, one plastic bottle bobbing along in the ocean can break down in to hundreds of tiny plastic pieces