Plastic waste: no longer out of sight, out of mind

By Sophie Morello

When you next take the bins out, take a second to think about the fact that much of what you’re disposing of will be shipped or driven across the world to be ‘processed’ overseas. It’s estimated that less than 10% of household plastic packaging is recycled in the UK and in last year Turkey, Malaysia and Poland received the largest amounts of plastic waste exports from the UK, with 40% going to Turkey alone, according to a recent report from Greenpeace. Overlooking the fact that transporting the waste will generate huge emissions, at least it is being recycled, eh? But apparently this is not the case. As the BBC showed last year, Turkey’s recycling and waste management infrastructure is struggling to keep up and our drinks bottles and ready meal trays are being found strewn across fields and floating in waterways. This is our problem, not Turkey’s.

The Plastic Waste Maker’s Index also ranked the UK as the fourth worst plastic polluter in terms of volume of single-use plastic waste generated per person. And while the pandemic curbed emissions when countries locked down, it has exacerbated the plastic waste crisis. With the rise in PPE, hand sanitiser, cleaning products and disposable coffee cups etc., we are throwing away more plastic than ever before.

So what next? Clearly the UK’s plastic recycling effort needs to be radically improved if we are to limit our national contribution to plastic waste pollution and the associated biodiversity loss. Steps are being taken, but will it be enough to tackle what seems an insurmountable problem? The Environment Bill, currently progressing through parliament, has a lot dedicated to waste management, recycling and resource-efficiency. There’s the Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles and Extended Producer responsibility (which are both being consulted on by Defra). And on exporting plastic waste, the Government has pledged to prevent the export of plastic to non-OECD countries – it was in the Conservative Party’s manifesto and an international OECD agreement on it came into force at the start of this year.

But we need a co-ordinated global effort too. The hope is that this week’s G7 Summit will take steps towards this.  There’s widespread support for a global treaty on plastic pollution, with 70 governments having previously expressed support. And now the likes of Nestlé and major supermarkets have called for the G7 to table a plastic pollution treaty.

With plastic so ubiquitous and integral to our daily lives, consumers can’t be relied on to shift the dial in any meaningful way. Yes, we should all “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but it’s time for world leaders to now step up.