How good is recycling in the UK?

With a view from the inside, managing director of British Recycled Plastic, Jason Elliot, explains what happens to your recycling and where the obstacles lie.

I think we’re lucky to be entering an age where, at long last, recycling is actually going to get some meaningful support as a concept from politicians. You could argue that it is overdue and not enough, but the fact that it is going in the right direction, is of genuine substance and that almost all countries are taking meaningful steps is something to be pleased about.

The recycling industry is still too fragmented and under-supported, but legislation like the Plastic Packaging Tax, due in April 2022, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law due in 2023, and the, currently delayed, Deposit Return Scheme, are all great news for the country and the planet as a whole.

The Plastic Packaging Tax scheme obliges manufacturers to include a minimum of 30 per cent recycled content. Failure to do that means those manufacturers will be fined £200 per tonne and that cash will go to HMRC.

The best news for Britain though is that when EPR comes in, the several billion that will be raised will go directly to local authorities to invest in recycling, rather than to HMRC like the Plastic Packaging Tax. Hopefully, although I’m not holding my breath, some of this investment will be spent homogenising processes between different local authorities and creating economies of scale.

Broadly speaking, there are types of materials that are recycled very well and others that are barely touched up to now. There are some changes starting to happen though in that arena. For example, Tesco has started to collect film in store, things like carrier bags and other soft plastics, and has so far amassed over 1,000 tonnes, much of which will be made into their ‘Bags for Life’, although unfortunately this manufacturing process doesn’t happen in the UK.

The world is nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of recycling plastic. This has nothing to do with the recycling industry and everything to do with the twin problems of the way things are manufactured, shortly to be addressed by EPR or its equivalents, and the lack of education or incentive for users of the final products. Both are global problems.

Plastic recycling
Three are 404 local authorities in the UK all in charge of their own recycling of household plastic. 

Recycling plastic from household waste is particularly challenging as local authorities are in charge of this and they are obliged by central government to prioritise the short-term financial issues ahead of the longer-term sustainability issues. As there are 404 local authorities in the UK, there are 404 different ways of addressing this problem. In the UK, the revenue from the issue of consumer plastic is currently further exacerbated by products and packaging that are hard to recycle, as well as a lack of buy-in from much of the population.

More financial support from government for actual recyclers, particularly to small start-ups, would pay huge long-term dividends for the country as a whole. At the moment there is a massive shortage of capacity in the UK. As we have seen, countries like China, and now Turkey, are saying enough is enough, so it is in the national interest to process and repurpose UK waste within the UK.

Tax breaks for companies that manufacture from fully recycled materials, of any kind, would also be a wise move, however, without an increase in supply it’s a moot point.

As far as the UK and Europe are concerned, I think the skills and willingness to learn are there. I also think the innovation in new materials is there too. The stumbling blocks have been the inertia of governments when it comes to support, both financial to recyclers and local authorities, and moral in terms of things like deposit schemes for drinks containers, combined with the lack of real effort on the part of most manufacturers to create products and packaging that can be 100 per cent recycled.

Finally that is changing, but it has been a long time coming.


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  1. I suppose this means that we will get our Prime Minister going on about all we are doing for the environment in Glasgow in a few weeks. In reality we and the government are doing very little.

    Much as it is nice to hear about the efforts Tesco are making with plastic. But on the occasions i go into supermarkets I am conscious of a sea of plastic.

    We need to get a move on. We need to clear up our own mess and not export it.

    1. I am told by the local Lib-Dem reps ( who just about hold the City Council whilst Tories hold the County Council) that ALL the recycled plastic in this county is incinerated because it no longer goes to the nether regions of the planet to be essentially dumped – in the name of avid recycling….

  2. This requires a huge culture change, especially for younger people who (unlike us oldies) have never known anything other than a throw-away society. I am encouraged by the attitudes of children, who are definitely hearing the message. My six-year-old grandson was appalled at the pile of litter in our local recreation ground, obviously left by seven people who had had a picnic (seven of everything, including paper napkins!)

    Culture change is gradual and takes a long time to become the norm. How long have we got?

  3. Every bit of plastic ever produced is still in existence. We should not be thinking of recycling, we should be thinking of banning. And that must come from Government. Most packaging is not needed. Most items wrapped in plastic are not needed. It does require a huge, monumental change in attitudes to “wanting” as opposed to “needing”. Tnkiering with recycling is not enough….

  4. All 3 bits of legislation Jason mentions are steps forward (somewhat slowly!) but, as he says, the big twin problems are the way things are manufactured and the lack of education – these, rather than the plethora of local authority collection systems, are the main reasons for our poor performance in recycling plastics. As far as manufacture is concerned, we’re not just talking about hard-to-recycle plastics and composite materials: the vast majority of single-use plastic is still made from fossil feedstock – which is often cheaper than recycled; and the recycled plastic is often used to create yet more plastic products, thus increasing our total use. Hopefully the tax will do something about this, but not as much as a carbon tax would. As for education … Greenpeace/EIA found ‘In 2019, 10 companies representing 95.2% of the grocery retail market sold 525 million single-use carrier bags and 1.58 billion ‘bags for life’ ‘ equivalent to 57 ‘bags for life’ per household: > 1per week. (Amazing. Given I haven’t bought any, wonder who’s doing the buying?) As jdholloway1 says, outright bans and a huge change in attitudes/massive investment in education about waste need to be part of the strategy.

    1. I agree a ban on single-use plastics would be amazing. If it keeps being manufactured the will and urgency to change is not there, we as a general public go for the easiest option most of the time, if it’s not available then it isn’t an option, we learn to make do. I live in Suffolk we are burning over 100% of our rubbish, or so it’s been suggested, so then I wouldn’t be surprised if this creates complacency, this raises even more questions. The Power Station is able to convert its energy into powering the local town though, and is amazingly clean and well run, with educational tours and talks available. If you take an interest, its a minefield and really hard to navigate. We run a refill center ourselves, but even those companies we buy the products from, sell their own bottles to be refilled although supposedly recyclable?


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