According to the Agency’s new report Plastics in the Environment, about two thirds of the waste is from packaging, the majority of which comes from households. Despite this high level of waste, fewer than 3.5 million households have kerbside waste collection, and only 7% of waste plastic is being recycled. According to the Agency, households use on average one plastic bag per day, with a total of seven billion being used in England and Wales each year.

“Plastic consumption is increasing by 4% each year,” said Dr John Murlis, the Environment Agency’s Chief Scientist. “If this trend continues, we soon will be swamped by waste plastics. There is a commonly held view that not all plastics can be recycled. This is not true. All plastics can be reused, recycled, or have energy recovered from them. Consumers are discouraged from recycling plastic – less than half of councils have kerbside collection. In addition to this there is no economic spur for companies to recycle. The use of plastic has benefited society, but we need urgent reform to encourage consumers and companies to use plastic wisely.”

The problem is not only a lack of reuse and recycling, says the Agency, but improper disposal in our increasingly throw-away society. Plastics’ persistence in the environment means that fly-tipping and littering may become a problem. The organisation’s fear is borne out by the Marine Conservation Society’s Beachwatch survey of 2000, which found that 55% of litter found on beaches was plastic (see related story).

The Agency’s report identifies the main barrier to increased recycling as being the price difference between virgin plastic polymer and recyclate. As a result of this, the Environment Agency is calling for the Government to consider the role of economic incentives to enable greater recycling and reuse, and for local authorities to increase curb-side collection. However, the responsibility must also fall to industry, and also to householders who need to change their un-ecological habits and “think before they buy, think before they bin, and think before they wrap”.

“All of us can act to reduce waste plastics – reuse old carrier bags rather than using new bags next time you go shopping,” said Murlis. “As most of the waste comes from packaging we should say ‘no’ to excessive plastic packaging.”

In response to the Agency’s report, a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) pointed out to edie that industry is already subject to packaging regulations (see related story), and that the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has also recently been set up in order to find new markets for recyclates.

Nevertheless, the Environment Agency is keen to point out that there are considerable environmental benefits from plastics, such as in the form of foam insulation in houses which saves as much energy in one year as that required to make the insulation. When used in vehicle construction, the lightweight nature of plastics results in fuel savings, and plastic food packaging keeps products fresh for longer and prevents contamination.

According to the Environment Agency, the organisation intends to practice what it preaches, and is developing plans to recycle plastic waste from Agency offices and to procure goods made from recycled plastic. The Agency is also working with industry to encourage companies to produce resource efficiency plans and to minimise waste creation, and intends to continue to be firm in enforcement activities against fly-tipping.

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