Plastics and packaging: The UK’s ‘waste mountain’ in charts

Eighteen environmental groups have urged the UK Government to deal with a growing "packaging waste mountain" by setting legally binding targets, following new waste and recycling figures published by Defra. Here, edie provides a snapshot of the UK's "waste mountain".

“We need to get drastic on plastic” campaigners proclaimed, after new data from Defra revealed that packaging waste recycling levels were lower in 2016 than they were three years prior. Despite 71.4% of UK packaging waste being recycled, the amount sent to landfill has increased by an extra 446,000 tonnes since 2013 – a 15% increase.

Campaigners from groups such as the Marine Conservation Society, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF have called on the UK Government to take “radical and decisive action” on single-use plastics, which are choking the oceans and seeping into food systems.

The UK Government’s long-awaited 25-year Environment Plan pledges to eliminate all “avoidable” plastic waste by the end of 2042, but with businesses and some councils committed to tackling the issue ahead of that timeframe, pressure is growing on ministers to act.

According to new statistics released by Defra on Thursday (22 February) plastics is just one part of the problem. UK recycling rates are stagnating and there is a very real chance that England, Scotland and Northern Ireland could fail to meet a targeted 50% recycling rate for 2020.

Data shows that the recycling rates for household waste increased in all UK countries in 2016, but only slightly. England achieved a 44.9% recycling rate and along with Northern Ireland (43%) and Scotland (42.8%), is being outperformed by the 57.3% recycling rate recorded in Wales. Overall, UK recycling rates have fallen from 44.9% in 2014 to 44.6% in 2016 (the latest available figures).

Waste from Households (WfH) is the harmonised measurement in the UK to report on recycling figures and is used to comply with the Waste Framework Directive. Since 2010, UK nations have individually increased recycling rates by at least 5%, except for England which has improved on a 41.2% recycling rate in 2010 by just 3.7%.

Packaging breakdown

While companies like Coca-Cola are criticised for the amount of packaging they produce, they reiterate that products such as plastic bottles are 100% recyclable. The issue in the UK is that more than half – or 51 million tonnes – of waste which is recyclable ends up in landfill or is destroyed.

Because of the stalled recycling rates, the gap between waste produced and waste recycled has grown by 1.5%, an increase of 226,000 tonnes from the previous year. So even though recycling rates are on the up, the amount of waste produced is accelerating at a quicker pace.

The UK has to adhere to the amended Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, which sets a minimum recovery target of 60% and a recycling target of 55% for packaging waste. Percentage levels vary across materials – for example, glass, paper and cardboard have 60% requirements, whereas plastics have 22.5% – but Member States have had to meet the minimum targets since 2008.


Recycling accounted for 7.4 million tonnes of the 11.5 million tonnes of packaging waste generated in the UK in 2016, with a further 0.8 million tonnes recovered using ‘energy from waste’ incineration. Paper and cardboard accounted for the highest amount of waste at 4.7 million tonnes.

For all packaging waste, recycling levels are up from 64.1% in 2014 to 71.4% in 2016. But this is still lower than 2013, when recycling levels reached 72.7%. Worryingly, the amount of recyclable packaging waste ending up in landfill or destroyed has increased by 15.7% compared to 2013 – an extra 446,000 tonnes.

The UK is currently complying with all aspects of the Directive and there is good news regarding plastics. The amount of plastic packaging being recycled is up 20%, with the amount heading to landfill falling by 9.5% compared to the prior year.

However plastic and wood remain the two least recycled packaging materials, at 44.9% and 30.9% respectively. These figures have deviated little from the previous recorded year (2014) where rates sat at 37.9% and 31.4%.


At a business level, commercial and industrial sectors generated 41.9 million tonnes of waste in 2014 (Defra is yet to update this data), with 32.8 million tonnes generated in England. This has led to a reduction in sectoral waste generated, which reached 44.2 million tonnes in 2012.

Provisional estimates for England indicate that waste generation has fallen further since 2014, to around 32.1 million tonnes in 2015 and 32.2 million tonnes in 2016.

However, commercial and industrial waste generation is “extremely difficult” to estimate, due to data gaps and limitations. Defra notes that these statistics have a much higher level of uncertainty compared to household waste figures.

The UK’s waste generation split is largely dominated by construction, demolition and excavation activities, which account for 59% of the UK’s waste. Household and commercial waste are level at 14% each, with “other sources” accounting for the remaining waste.

Depending on who is asked, infrastructure reforms are crucial to handling waste, especially now that China has implemented its import ban on plastics and paper. According to the Environmental Services Association (ESA), the UK is likely to be left six million tonnes short of waste treatment capacity by 2030. On the other hand, consultants Eunomia argue that UK waste treatment capacity will exceed the generation of residual waste by 2020.

Defra also collates summaries from the environment agencies of all four UK countries on facilities authorised by mandatory permit or license to handle the waste produced. Recycling and recovery is the most common final waste treatment type, handling 91.1 million tonnes of waste in 2014 – a little more than 43%.

Landfill is the second most used waste treatment method in the UK, accountable for almost a quarter of all generated waste. A total of 48.2 million tonnes of waste was disposed of at landfill in 2014.

However, current data excludes facilities permitted only for intermediate treatment of waste, meaning most anaerobic digesters aren’t covered in the statistics.

Across the UK, 29 energy recovery facilities have the capacity to handle 4,862,000 tonnes of waste, while the 83 incineration facilities can handle almost 10,000,000 tonnes. The 2,660 facilities that recover waste other than through energy, including backfilling, don’t yet have a detailed capacity.

Matt Mace

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