Plastic bottles: Turning Back the Plastic Tide Contents


The UK uses 13 billion plastic bottles every year. Only 7.5 billion are recycled. The remaining 5.5 billion are landfilled, littered, or incinerated. Eunomia Research and Consulting told us that landfill and incineration of plastic bottles produces approximately 233,000 tonnes of CO2e emissions a year. Littering of plastic bottles spoils our streets and threatens our wildlife. Clearing litter and enforcing the law cost local authorities £778 million in 2015/16. Plastic bottles make up a third of all plastic pollution in the sea. If marine plastic pollution continues to rise at its current rate, the amount of plastic in the sea will outweigh fish by 2050. Plastic bottles are an avoidable source of marine plastic pollution, as well as an engaging and tangible issue for the general public, sparking consideration of other types of marine plastic pollution.

Our inquiry has been guided by the Waste Hierarchy - reduce, reuse, recycle. The most desirable method of waste management is the prevention of waste. We also took account of the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle; that those who produce pollution should bear the costs of managing it. The Waste Hierarchy and the Polluter Pays principle are enshrined in EU law, but are also internationally recognised sustainable development principles. The UK Government has commitments under the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development to responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), as well as protecting life below water (Goal 14) and life on land (Goal 15) by 2030.

While the introduction of household improved the recycling rate of plastic bottles from 1% in 2001 to 57% today, we heard that the recycling rate has plateaued in the last five years. This means 15 million plastic bottles are littered, landfilled or incinerated every day. Deposit Return Schemes encourage high levels of recycling of plastic bottles, primarily by collecting bottles which are littered or disposed of on-the-go. Around 700,000 plastic bottles are littered every day in the UK and fewer than half of local councils provide on-street recycling bins. The UK needs an effective system to capture all plastic bottles, not just those disposed of in household waste. We therefore recommend the Government introduce a well-designed Deposit Return Scheme, providing an economic incentive for consumers to recycle plastic bottles. The Government should consult with industry stakeholders and local authorities to ensure that their concerns are accounted for in the design of the Scheme. The monies raised from this scheme should be reinvested in plastic reprocessing facilities in the UK. We currently export 280,000 – 320,000 tonnes of mixed plastic to China each year. Given the recent Chinese ban on mixed plastic waste from the UK, this investment is both urgent, to avoid a huge increase in landfill, and will save money and create jobs in the long run.

We have heard that plastic bottle manufacturers continue to use mixed polymer plastics, such as sleeve wrappings and coloured plastics, which contaminate the recycling stream and reduce the value of the recycled material. We recommend the Government introduce a mandated minimum use of 50% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) in new plastic bottles by 2023 at the latest. We also recommend that the Government use its Waste Strategy to reduce the number and type of plastics in use in the UK to move to a truly sustainable, resource efficient economy. The former would create demand for recycled plastics even when the oil price is low and incentivise greater capture and collection of all plastic bottles - not just water bottles. The latter would incentivise the beverage container industry to reduce their use of unnecessary mixed polymer plastics and improve the quality of rPET produced in the UK.

We have used plastic bottles as a starting point for discussion of wider issues related to packaging recycling and disposal. We heard that the UK’s weak Producer Responsibility Obligation fees (which are among the lowest in the EU) leave taxpayers to cover around 90% of the costs of packaging waste disposal. Litter costs UK taxpayers £800m a year. This indicates that Producer Responsibility Obligations do not make producers financially responsible for the packaging they are putting on the market. We recommend the Government introduce a varied compliance fee structure that reduces costs for easily recyclable, simple plastics and raises costs on packaging that is difficult to recycle. This would give producers and retailers an incentive to only produce and use packaging that can be easily recycled within the UK’s current recycling infrastructure. We also believe the de minimis level for companies covered by PRO schemes should be reduced. This would give the industry a greater financial incentive to produce and use only packaging that can be recycled within the UK’s current recycling infrastructure.

In the last 15 years, consumption of bottled water has doubled. Water bottles now make up around half of all plastic bottles. To reduce the 7.7 billion plastic water bottles used each year in the UK, a culture of carrying a reusable bottle should be embedded through the provision of public water fountains and access to free tap water. We call upon the Government to introduce a regulation for all premises which serve food or drink to provide free drinking water upon request, including sports centres and leisure centres. The Government should review the health and litter-reducing benefits of providing public water fountains and amend the Water Industry Act 1991 to give water companies formal powers to erect water fountains. These actions could cut usage of plastic water bottles by 65%. The House of Commons and the Government should show leadership and phase out bottled water sales and encourage the use of re-usable bottles.

20 December 2017