UK ‘packaging waste mountain’ still to be climbed

Posted by Catherine Flitcroft on 22/02/2018

Responding to new waste and recycling figures published by DEFRA today, 18 environmental groups (co-ordinated by Wildlife and Countryside Link) are warning that the UK Government must set ambitious and legally binding targets to deal with our growing ‘packaging waste mountain.’

The call comes as the latest figures, released today, show that overall recycling rates have continued to stall and packaging waste recycling has fallen from 2013. Although the packaging waste recycling rate in 2016 had increased from 2014 (up to 71.4% from 64.1%), it is still lower than in 2013 when 72.7% of packaging waste was recycled. The amount of recyclable packaging waste ending up in landfill or destroyed is up by 15.7% compared to 2013 - an extra 446,000 tonnes.

Key statistics from the new Defra data* show that:

  • Overall recycling rates increased only very slightly in 2016 to 44.6% in 2016 up from 44.3 per cent in 2015 and down from 44.9 per cent in 2014.
  • More than half (54.5%) of our waste which is recyclable ends up in landfill or destroyed - over 15 million tonnes.
  • The gap between waste and recycling has grown due to stalled recycling rates with recyclable waste ending up in landfill in 2016 up 1.5% in 2016 or 226,000 tonnes from the previous year this due to the increase in the volume of waste despite the higher recycling rate.
  • There is some positive news on plastics packaging recycling, with plastic packaging recycling notably up by 20% and the amount heading to landfill or being destroyed down  by 9.65%.
  • However plastic and wood remain the two least recycled packaging materials with 44.9% and 30.9% respectively. This shows little movement from the previous year (2014) when rates were 37.9% and 31.4%, although wood recycling is declining every year.
  • Paper and cardboard packaging waste going to landfill or destroyed in 2016 was shockingly up by 110% from 2013, wood is up by more than half (52.6%) and glass is up 3.95%.
  • However plastic packaging waste ending up in landfill or destroyed has fallen almost 20%: 1,245,000 tonnes of plastic waste in 2016 down from 1,546,000 in 2013, and metal is down by almost a third (33.1%) .

*Please see below for a table of data by year.

Dr Catherine Flitcroft, access and conservation officer at the British Mountaineering Council, said: “We have an Everest of a waste mountain to climb. It is a national disgrace that less than half of our waste is recycled. The Government needs to grapple with this issue as a matter of urgency if we are to save our treasured landscapes and wildlife from waste.

“We all have our role to play by cutting back on single-use plastics and recycling. But the Government needs to show strong leadership by tackling the problem at the manufacturing source, improving our recycling infrastructure, and simplifying recycling labelling, to help both consumers and industry to make sustainable choices.”

Chris Tuckett, director of programmes at Marine Conservation Society, said:  “The increase in plastic packaging recycling is positive, but there’s still a long way to go. We are choking our oceans with our plastic - killing marine wildlife and affecting our own health. The public has made it clear that the situation can, and must, change. It is vital the Government listens and responds by simplifying recycling labelling and getting manufacturers on board with banishing single use plastics.”

Julian Kirby, waste campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “With China’s slamming of the door on contaminated UK recycling and people across the country increasingly appalled at the impacts of plastic pollution, these recycling statistics are another damning indictment of the government’s ineffective laissez-faire approach to waste. Gove’s green speeches must be matched with clear targets and direction if England is to match Wales’s startling progress, and undo the disastrous impact of his colleagues’ 2011 Waste Review.”

Sarah Baulch, senior oceans campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, said: “If we want to avoid seeing turtles trapped in bags and six-pack wrappers and whales washed up on shores dead from ingesting plastic, we need to get drastic on plastic. The Government must take radical and decisive action to change our reliance on single-use plastics.”

Louise Edge, senior marine campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “The scale of our waste is shocking and our oceans, rivers and countryside are becoming our rubbish dumps. The Government is simply not being radical enough to solve the waste epidemic. Promises to tackle plastic waste are welcome, but we need a firm action plan with legally-binding targets if we are to save our oceans from becoming a lethal waste soup.”

Dr Lyndsey Dodds, head of marine policy at WWF, said: “When it comes to our waste it’s been a case of out of sight out of mind. With plastic now suffocating our seas, littering our countryside and even infiltrating our diets, we can’t ignore the problem any longer. The UK shouldn’t be reliant on other nations to clean up after us, but instead focus on stamping out single-use plastics by 2025.”

Dr Elaine King, director of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “To stop our oceans and countryside from becoming ‘wastelands’ the UK Government must act urgently to tackle waste. If the UK is to be a world leader on this issue, we need decisive action now to slash production of single use plastics by manufacturers, and make recycling easier for consumers.”

With China refusing to take our plastic, cardboard and paper waste adding an extra driver, it is essential that the UK Government takes urgent steps to slash our waste production and revolutionise our recycling, to give us the capacity to deal with our own waste sustainably. The UK Government has stepped-up on the issue of microbeads and they need to continue being a world leader by addressing waste production and management in the UK, not exporting our problems to other nations.

Within the UK, Wales has made great progress on tackling waste by introducing statutory targets for recycling in 2012 and investing in recycling infrastructure. Wales now ranks fourth in the world for household recycling (England ranks 18th out of 25 ranked countries) and met its 64% recycling target four years early. Scotland has committed to an ambitious target to recycle 70% of waste items by 2025 as part of its Zero Waste Plan and more recently to a deposit return system for drinks containers. Scotland is also investigating phasing out single use plastics by 2030. In Northern Ireland, local councils are leading the charge with Derry City and Ards and North Down passing bans on single use plastics. There have been welcome proposals in England, but it is lagging behind devolved nations, with statutory targets and infrastructure investment essential to boost recycling rates.

Last Christmas the Secretary of State Michael Gove announced a four point proposal to boost recycling by: reducing the number of plastics in use to make recycling easier; cutting single-use plastics; improving the recycling rate, and making recycling easier for families. The campaigners are urging Defra to publish a definitive action plan to deliver these proposals and meet the UK Government’s ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050, including setting legally-binding targets to: 

  • Reduce single-use plastics as the foremost priority, with clear timelines and measures by which to do so
  • Invest centrally in the UK recycling infrastructure, so that all plastics and other recyclable waste can be put in every household recycling bin nationwide by 2023
  • Once a comprehensive recycling infrastructure is in place, require all packaging to have a simple recyclable or non-recyclable label, as consumers are baffled by recycling labelling
  • Lay-out targets for each 5-year period from 2025-2050 on the percentage of recyclable plastic, wood, glass, metal, card and cardboard to be recycled, working towards their 100% recycling – zero waste target by 2050. A clear action plan is needed to achieve this
  • Reform Producer Responsibility Obligations to make producers financially responsible for the costs of their waste production, as 90% of the costs of waste disposal are currently footed by the taxpayer, and to incentivise eco-design for packaging

Table of overall UK waste and recycling by year


The Access and Conservation Trust

The BMC's charity  the BMC Access & Conservation Trust  promotes sustainable access to cliffs, mountains and open countryside by facilitating education and conservation projects across the United Kingdom and Ireland.

By educating climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers to enjoy outdoor recreation while minimising their impact on the landscape, conserving the UK’s upland resources, and campaigning for improved access rights, ACT enables future generations to continue to enjoy outdoor activities and the physical, mental and social benefits they bring to individual lives and society in general.

READ: More about the recent work of ACT

WATCH: the Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million campaign film


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