Recycling gap: Most Brits claim they recycle plastic at home, so why aren’t rates improving?

Plastic recycling is rising up the environmental agenda in the UK again

The statistic is a headline finding of the new ‘State of Plastic Recycling’ report from Hi-Cone, which manufactures packaging solutions including the ring carriers found on multipacks of beverage cans.

In producing the report, Hi-Cone commissioned YouGov to survey 5,000 adults across the UK, Spain, Mexico and the US, with an even split of respondents from each nation. Of the UK respondents, 79% claimed to recycle at least 75% of the plastic waste generated within their homes, largely through kerbside recycling systems.

This proportion is considerably higher than the official figures from the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra). Figures from Defra last March revealed that the UK reused or recycled 46.2% of the plastic packaging it produced in 2017.  New Defra figures on dry mixed recycling from homes, including plastics, published this month, revealed a minimal increase since then.

It could be the case that respondents were either over-estimating or deliberately exaggerating the proportion of plastic they place into recycling bins knowing that it is recyclable. Hi-Cone notably recorded a mixed picture in terms of awareness on the recyclability of certain items and in terms of understanding key buzzwords like “circular economy”.

However, issues with collection and processing – in terms of infrastructure capacity and capability – probably also have a role to play. On the former, Hi-Cone’s survey found that one-third of respondents wanted more home recycling for plastics, like more bins or more frequent collections.

On the latter, many councils have been observed to either incinerate collected recycling or export it abroad due to a lack of processing capability locally. This has contributed to distrust from residents which may have affected recycling behaviours – one 2019 survey found that four in ten UK adults suspect that their council’s contracted waste manager is not recycling the majority of the items they separate. And, while innovative systems are coming online rapidly, the UK still does not have large-scale facilities capable of recycling things like black plastics or plastic films in a closed-loop fashion.

The British Plastics Federation estimates that the UK’s recycling capacity now is just one-third of what it will be in 2030. Updates on the UK’s Resources and Waste Strategy, due this year after pandemic-related delays, may well provide good news in this space.

You can read a fuller breakdown of the Defra figures in edie’s recent ‘Tracking the UK’s waste mountain in charts feature.

Out and about

As well as challenges and opportunities with recycling domestically, the Hi-Cone report tracked consumer attitudes about the ease of recycling on-the-go.

This had been a key focus of many collaborative projects involving corporates pre-Covid-19, including Hubbub’s ‘Leeds By Example’, which has since been replicated in cities including Swansea and Edinburgh. Over lockdown, many schemes of this nature were either paused or experienced lower levels of uptake from consumers. Separately, the reduction in the frequency of waste collections from public bins by many councils has been linked to a rise in littering and a decrease in recycling on-the-go in the UK.

With the end of lockdown restrictions on the horizon, the Hi-Cone survey found a strong public appetite for tools to help them recycle on-the-go. 62% of respondents from the UK said they want to see more recycling bins in public places.

Who’s responsible?

Another major question posed in the Hi-Cone survey focussed on who consumers believe is responsible for plastic waste.

Almost three-quarters (64%) said that product manufacturers and other plastic producers, like companies that make the raw materials or that manufacture the packaging elsewhere, should bear the most responsibility for ensuring recycling. Figures were lower for the national government (57%) and lower again for devolved administrations and local councils.

Only one in ten people said that non-profit groups should assume the responsibility. Half stated that consumers have a responsibility, but most agreed that other actors across the value chain also have a role to play.

These changes in opinion are being mirrored in the proposed changes to policy under the Resources and Waste Strategy. The strategy outlines plans to alter Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes and to introduce taxes on plastics packaging with low quantities of recycled content and/or poor recyclability.

The Strategy also floats a deposit return scheme for plastic drinks containers – likely to come into effect in 2023 at the earliest. Such a scheme would incentivise consumers with the promise of a refundable deposit, while placing new responsibilities on corporates.

Beyond the Strategy, the UK Government has committed to eliminating all “avoidable” plastics waste by 2042.

Join the conversation during edie’s Circular Economy Week

The publication of the Hi-Cone report comes as edie celebrates its Circular Economy Week – an exclusive editorial campaign dedicated to accelerating the shift to closed-loop models of production and consumption. Read more about the full schedule and find out how to get involved here.

The headline attractions of Circular Economy Week are the Inspiration Sessions, taking place on Thursday (25 March) from 1pm- 4pm GMT. The three events range from Q&A style debates with circular economy experts, to business-led panel discussions and a masterclass. Experts from organisations including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Zero Waste Scotland and The Body Shop are taking part. 

For full details and to register, click here. Tickets, which give holders access to all three events live and on-demand, cost £49 plus VAT. 

Sarah George

Comments (4)

  1. Monica Filkova says:

    Surveys like this should test for "wishcycling", i.e. determine if people actually know what plastic is recyclable by their local council / recycling facility and the instructions for collection. For example if the plastic is placed in a black bin bag it will be moved to waste even if it is full of recyclables. What is recycled should be more transparently publicised and packaging should be single type plastic with no print inks, etc to make it easier to recycle.

  2. Rob Horlock says:

    We used to put all used soup, yoghurt, fruit, etc plastic containers into our recycling. Then we discovered that our local authority only accepts plastic bottles – no other plastic waste. They say that they have no facility to process plastic waste (other than bottles) or there is no demand for the recycled product.
    I’m surprised that the DEFRA recycling figures are as high as they are, on that basis!

  3. Roger Munford says:

    Again I will point out the German system. having lived in UK and Germany, it certainly is effective easy to use. The key is to not think "plastic" think "packaging".
    1. Every Household in the country gets a free yellow bin as big as you need which enables small businesses to participate. This is for packaging only. Mental test "Does anything come in it?" not "Does it belongs in recycling bin check the following chart for this local authority".
    2. A small fee is levied on every piece of packaging sold in Germany which pays for the universal collection and recycling of packaging. Reduce your packaging – save money. Use easy to recycle packaging like cardboard – save money. Want to introduce a new crazy type of packaging that is attractive to consumers. Absolutely fine just create the recycling infrastructure first.
    3. Give local authorities a break. They don’t design the packaging. They must dispose of any type and quantity the industry presses into the consumers hands.
    4. Let the market operate. If the value of your packaging waste falls it means there is a glut. The fee charged will automatically rise so it might be time to change or reduce packaging.
    5. The fees are easy to collect. Just like a VAT form. If your business software doesn’t give you the total number of all the items you sell you need a different package. It only affects manufacturers and importers. Resellers are unaffected. Small businesses like butchers and bakers just buy bags they use with levies prepaid.
    6. Results. Every address in the country from cities to remote islands gets all their packaging waste collected and treated the same. Local Authorities are freed from all the work in coming up with their own plastics recycling. There is a real incentive for manufacturers to make packaging as small and as easy to recycle as possible. No packaging type needs to be banned. If is is "good" it is cheap to use. If difficult it is expensive.
    7. This simple elegant solution (25 years old) gives Germany its legendary status. Over the same time the UK is inundated with articles such as this one. "Why oh why is recycling in the UK so poor". Germany has the data and the experience, big players like Unilever know the score and wont break sweat, small businesses can gain, many like restaurants, can escape commercial waste collection completely. The UK just continues as we always have done and will never improve substantially and will probably look at incineration as the way out.

  4. Nigel Sharples says:

    Although householders may genuinely recycle 75% of their plastic waste into kerbside bin collections, I don’t think that many realise that council recycling facilities stress that only CLEAN plastics will be recycled. Throwing a ready meal tray which still has traces of food around the side for example means it ends up in landfill.
    Councils need to make this clearer – and any other restrictions – do tins need to be clean, what about the paper wrapping or labels on glass jars?

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