Posted: 12/12/2023

Plastic Packaging Use and Recycling Collection Rates Drop for the First Time

Plastic resource efficiency and recycling charity, RECOUP, has launched its annual UK Household Plastic Packaging Collection Survey, which estimates that year-on-year plastic packaging use and plastic packaging collection quantities have dropped for the first time.

It was estimated that there was reduction of around 70,000 tonnes in the quantity of household plastic packaging placed on the market in the UK, with quantities collected by local authorities at the kerbside also reducing by nearly 30,000 tonnes. Both have reduced by around 5%. There has also been a plateau in the development of kerbside provision, as all UK local authorities have collected plastic bottles for recycling at the kerbside since 2019, but only 88% collect plastic pots, tubs, and trays, the same as in 2021, and plastic films and flexibles dropping from 13% to 12%, the sixth year in a row this has decreased.

This amounts to a collection rate of 42% for all household plastic packaging – 63% for plastic bottles, 39% for plastic pots, tubs, and trays, and 7% for plastic films and flexibles. The UK’s overall recycling rate for plastic packaging from household and commercial sources is 52%.

With Simpler Recycling announced in October, and dates communicated with regards to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) across the UK, local authorities can now start to plan how they can tackle the changes needed, although payments to enable this from the new packaging Extended Producer Responsibility are yet to be fully established.

Policy alone may not unpick some of the complexities local authorities have with their collection contracts and infrastructure, but to avoid a further slide or stagnation in household plastic collections, efforts need to be made sooner rather than later, particularly with recycling targets due to increase.

This year’s Survey found that whilst local authorities are making significant efforts to communicate recycling specification to citizens, more resource and focus is needed on plastic packaging citizen communications and behaviour change programmes.

RECOUP is also launching its UK Citizen Plastics Recycling Behaviours Insights Survey 2023 which indicates an annual drop of 7% nationally of citizens claiming to recycle plastics drinks bottles every time, to 88%. Despite the fact that citizens tend to overclaim actual behaviours this reflects a worrying trend. However, where Pledge2Recycle Plastics has been partnering with Durham County Council to deliver citizen and community engagement on plastics recycling, individuals declaring to recycle drinks bottles every time rose by 2%, to 97%.

Anne Hitch, Business and Project Development Lead at RECOUP, commented:

“Whilst we continue to wait for supporting legislation, citizens remain uncertain about what to recycle in terms of plastics and how. 32% of all respondents to the Insights Survey declared that when they do not recycle an item it is because they are confused about if it is recyclable.

“If we are to gain ground in terms of kerbside tonnages and quality of plastics, it is crucial that investment in plastics recycling communications is given priority”.

57% of local authorities conduct ongoing waste and recycling communication campaigns, and a further 23% in the last 12 months. Significant inconsistency remains in messaging, including around asking for lids to be on or off bottles, packaging to be empty, rinsed, washed, flattened, or squashed.

The need for good communications is backed up by a small increase in reject rates, which were up to 37% for one local authority, and an average of 14% across all respondents.

Tom McBeth, Policy & Infrastructure Manager at RECOUP, commented:

“This year’s Survey has shown the reduction in packaging placed on the market.

“Whilst the collected material also dropped, in the context of the amount of material used, it shows a picture of stagnation in collection levels with service provision also remaining similar to the 2022 Survey.

“With the news of Simpler Recycling beginning to come into force in England from 2025, and some level of certainty in dates for material collection requirements, DRS and EPR, it is important that local authorities are now able to understand the funding they will have to drive the collection of more plastic packaging from consumers”.

The RECOUP UK Household Plastic Packaging Collection Survey 2023 is available for RECOUP members to download from its website.