Plastics have grown indispensable in the past several decades owing to their widespread use and low manufacturing costs. The world’s annual plastics manufacturing has increased by 80 percent since the turn of the century and is presently at over 370 million metric tons. However, most of this is useless garbage because many plastic items are discarded after a single use. These often enter water systems, wreaking havoc on aquatic organisms. Around 2.5 million metric tons of plastic packaging garbage was generated by British homes in 2021, a marginal rise from the previous year. In 2021, recycling rates for plastic packaging trash in the U.K. hit 44%. Over the last several years, there has been a rise in trash caused by plastic packaging from homes. This paper’s discussion of U.K. plastic waste and management practices, evaluation of policy-level interventions to reduce plastic pollution, and suggestion for how Defra might implement those with the most significant potential to improve the country’s waste management system require evidence-based information.
According to Statista, the amount of plastic packaging trash generated by British homes in 2021 was almost 2.5 million metric tons, a slight rise over the previous year. Plastic packaging trash recycling in the U.K. reached 44% in 2021 (Tiseo, 2022). Over the last several years, there has been a rise in the quantity of garbage generated by plastic packaging in the home. Figure 1.1 below shows plastic packaging trash produced in the U.K. from 2012-2021.
Figure 1.1. Plastic packaging trash produced in the U.K. from 2012-2021
Researchers estimate that just 12% of plastic trash in the U.K. gets recycled locally. However, about 20% of U.K. plastic trash is sent abroad (Tiseo, 2022). Approximately half of the plastic trash produced in the United Kingdom is burned, with the rest being disposed of in landfills. The United Kingdom has thus far implemented a plastic packaging tax on containers made from less than 30% recycled plastic, a ban on microbeads in wash-off personal care products, and measures to limit the availability of plastic straws, drink stirrers, and cotton swabs made from plastic stems. The United Kingdom is a founding member of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, a group of more than 30 countries advocating for a target under the treaty to halt plastic flow into our lands and oceans by the year 2040 (Tiseo, 2022). The United Kingdom previously co-sponsored the proposal to prepare a new treaty.
The U.K. has developed various interventions at the policy level in the U.K. in order to curb plastic pollution. One of these interventions is banning microbeads. Microbeads, or microplastics, were formerly used in many personal care products, including toothpaste, face wash, and body scrub. The United Kingdom finally implemented a ban on these harmful substances (Calderwood, 2018). There were so many small plastics that a single shower may wipe away as many as 100,000. Due to their size, they were escaping filtration and entering the ocean, where they harmed the diets of marine life and eventually made their way up the food chain to humans.
Another strategy the U.K. government has implemented to curb plastic waste is introducing plastic-free aisles in supermarkets. Theresa May’s zero-waste programs made headlines last year; this is related to them and forms part of her 25-year plan. The idea is to force supermarkets to set up “plastic-free aisles,” in which all the food is loose, to allow consumers to make environmentally-friendly choices (Calderwood, 2018). Zero-waste stores have already had a big surge around the world, from London to Copenhagen to Montreal. However, this vital initiative may become widespread with the introduction of statewide supermarkets.
Extending the 5p carrier bag tax is another strategy implemented by the U.K. government to curb plastic waste. Another recently revealed plan would extend the 5-cent bag charge to all retail establishments. It would put England in line with the other U.K. nations that have taken this step, unlike England, which presently exempts businesses with less than 250 workers from the bag levy, including corner stores. Some pharmacies and stores selling goldfish as pets would be the only businesses excluded under the revised version, as reported by Sky News. It was reported in July this year that since the 5p plastic bag tax was imposed in October 2015, bag consumption has decreased by 90%, with 9 billion fewer bags used nationwide (Calderwood, 2018).
Furthermore, around £66 million has been donated from the fee. In August, Tesco went a step further by outlawing even the 10p bag for life in favor of the 5p bag for one-time usage. Moreover, when the bag tax was initially implemented, Sainsbury’s followed suit. Other possibilities for applying similar fees to other products to reduce the usage of disposable plastics are also being examined. Takeout food containers might be subject to a proposed tax rise revealed by Chancellor Philip Hammond in his budget address in November and are now in the consultation phase.
The zero-waste programs implemented by the U.K. government are the most likely interventions to curb plastic waste. In line with Waste Strategy for England 2007, the zero waste program in the U.K. is committed to promoting sustainable waste management methods such as waste minimization, pollution and damage minimization, waste reuse, recycling, waste recovery operations, and pollutant recovery from contaminated land (Rhodes, 2018). This strategy is more likely to help the U.K. government curb the problem of plastic waste.
To limit the amount of plastic waste entering the terrestrial and marine environment in the U.K., Defra needs to encourage the reduction of the use of single-use plastics. “Single-use plastics” include water bottles, straws, glasses, cutlery, dry cleaning bags, takeout containers, and other items. Customers that need SUPPs should recycle or reuse them to reduce their environmental impact. Takeout meal containers, disposable cups, bottles, and silverware may be reused. This strategy might reduce environmental damage, save resources, create jobs, and educate people about recycling and plastic trash (Rhodes, 2018). This technique loses money and is inefficient. Reducing waste does not guarantee excellent outcomes. Due to infinite plastic waste, several recycling factories are needed.
Defra can also participate in a beach or river clean up to limit the amount of plastic waste entering the terrestrial and marine environment in the U.K. Defra should participate in the cleanup of local beaches or rivers to remove trash from the ocean and prevent their entry (Löhr et al., 2017). This may help battle ocean plastic pollution. This method can prove to be expensive since it requires some investments. Lastly, Defra should encourage the avoidance of products containing microbeads. Microbeads, which are tiny pieces of plastic, are a rapidly expanding problem in the ocean. Hundreds of marine species are negatively impacted by microbeads since they are present in various facial scrubs, toothpaste, and body washes and efficiently reach our seas and streams via our sewage systems (Löhr et al., 2017). Microbeads are made from the plastics polyethylene and polypropylene; therefore, check for those words on the ingredient labels to avoid using cosmetics that include them. This method is advantageous since it can help curb plastic waste.
To conclude, plastic waste is a problem in the U.K. and worldwide. The U.K. government has laid down some strategies to curb plastic waste, such as banning microbeads, introducing plastic-free aisles in supermarkets, introducing zero-waste programs, and extending the 5p carrier bag tax. Moreover, Defra can limit the amount of plastic waste entering the terrestrial and marine environment in the U.K. by encouraging the reduction of single-use plastics, participating in a beach or river cleanup, and avoiding products containing microbeads.
Tiseo, I. (2022, August 25). Topic: Plastic waste in the U.K. Statista. Retrieved January 12, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/topics/4918/plastic-waste-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/#dossierKeyfigures
Calderwood, I. (2018, January 11). 9 brilliant ways the U.K. is cracking down on plastic pollution. Global Citizen. Retrieved January 12, 2023, from https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/uk-tackling-plastic-pollution-waste-plan/?gclid=Cj0KCQiA_P6dBhD1ARIsAAGI7HAJpc6Lh3Hr0DpR6x2ImfHOB5fynzdLymN00ZFOwn9Dh7hW5j39MAsaAqRfEALw_wcB
Rhodes, C. J. (2018). Plastic pollution and potential solutions. Science progress, 101(3), 207-260.
Löhr, A., Savelli, H., Beunen, R., Kalz, M., Ragas, A., & Van Belleghem, F. (2017). Solutions for global marine litter pollution. Current opinion in environmental sustainability, 28, 90-99.