Plastic bottles: Turning Back the Plastic Tide Contents


1.This is one of two reports published as part of our Disposable Packaging Inquiry. This inquiry was originally launched in the 2015 – 2017 Parliament and was then closed when Parliament was dissolved for the 2017 General Election. The new Committee relaunched the inquiry in September 2017. Written evidence accepted for the previous inquiry was considered in the relaunched inquiry. Our examination of plastic bottles and coffee cups highlighted the difficulty of recycling packaging on-the-go. We also discovered issues specific to plastic bottles which required separate analysis and recommendations. They are set out in this report.

2.Recent media and television coverage on marine plastic pollution has brought this issue to the forefront of public awareness. Plastic bottle waste finds its way from the land into our rivers and seas, where it degrades into microplastics, easily consumed by fish and sea life.1 We were told that plastic bottles make up a third of all plastic litter found in the sea, and that if the current trend of marine plastic pollution levels continue, the tonnage of plastic in the sea will outweigh fish by 2050.2

3.Approximately 13 billion plastic bottles are used each year in the UK. Only 7.5 billion are recycled. Plastic bottles, such as drinks bottles, milk bottles and toiletries bottles make up over 60% of household plastic packaging.3 While the introduction of household collection has improved the recycling rate of plastic bottles, from 1% in 2001 to 57% today, we heard that recycling of plastic bottles has flat-lined in the last five years. This results in 5.5 billion plastic bottles being landfilled, littered or incinerated each year. Additionally, we heard that, every day, 700,000 plastic bottles are littered. This litter blights our towns, cities, and countryside, where it poses a threat to wildlife, which eats or becomes entangled in it. Plastic bottles attract further littering and they have been found to accumulate more quickly than any other litter type.

4.Plastic bottles are one element of disposable packaging waste. We use plastic bottles as a starting point for discussion of wider packaging recycling issues, in particular packaging producer responsibility obligations. Our focus on plastic bottles and coffee cups also pointed to how recycling is hampered by on-the-go consumption and disposal; an issue given careful consideration throughout the inquiry and in our final reports.

5.The terms of reference for the inquiry can be found on our website. We held four public hearings with environmental researchers, NGOs, retail body representatives, packaging producers, local authority representatives and Dr. Thérèse Coffey MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). We received 122 pieces of written evidence which are published on our website. A full list of witnesses can be found at the end of this report. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence to this inquiry. We would also like to thank Louise Smith and Dr. Elena Ares from the House of Commons Library for providing research assistance throughout this inquiry.

Progress during this Inquiry

6.During this inquiry, both Government and industry have made the following announcements:

a)On 2nd October DEFRA established the Voluntary and Economic Incentives Working group to look at measures that can reduce the incidence of commonly littered items and improve recycling and reuse of packaging.4 The working group has begun by looking at measures for drinks containers, such as deposit return schemes and will publish its findings shortly.

b)On the 11th October 2017, Pret A Manger announced that it recognised the “shocking statistics about millions of tonnes [of plastic] ending up in our oceans” and has installed water fountains in three of its shops. These shops also began selling two sizes of reusable glass bottles.5

c)On 24th October 2017, DEFRA announced that maximum litter fines will almost double to £150 from April 2018. New fines will be introduced for owners of vehicles from which litter is thrown.6

d)On 26th October 2017, The Times reported that Lucozade Ribena Suntory, the manufacturer of Lucozade and Ribena bottles, had committed to remove plastic films and sleeves on their bottles. This followed a detailed discussion of the recyclability challenges caused by these mixed polymer items during our evidence session on the 24th October.7

e)On 22nd November 2017, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt Hon Phillip Hammond MP, announced in the Autumn Budget that the Government would “investigate how the tax systems and charges on single-use plastic items can reduce waste.”8

f)On 30th November 2017, Co-op and Iceland became the first retailers in the UK to announce their support for a Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles in a survey conducted by Greenpeace.9 This is in addition to Coca-Cola, who were the first major drinks manufacturer to announce their support for a well-designed deposit return scheme.

g)On 6th December 2017, all 193 countries in the UN signed a resolution to eliminate plastic in the sea. The resolution requires all signatories to start monitoring how much plastic they put in the ocean and to explore ways of making it illegal to dump plastic in the ocean.10

h)On 18th December 2017, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said he was considering measures to cut the amount of plastic in circulation, reduce the number of different plastics in use, improve the rate of recycling and move towards more consistently in what is and is not recyclable. Detailed proposals have not been announced.

1 Q165, Q173, Surfers Against Sewage (PKG0047A), Greenpeace UK (PKG0064A), Marine Conservation Society (PKG0074A), #OneLess Campaign (PKG0083A). Written evidence accepted as part of the original Packaging Inquiry launched in the 2015 – 2017 Parliamentary Session is marked A, and evidence accepted as part of the relaunched inquiry is marked B.

2 Have You Got the Bottle? (PKG0078A), #OneLess Campaign (PKG0083A)

3 RECycling of Used Plastics Limited, 2017 RECOUP Household Collection Survey

8 House of Commons, Autumn Budget Statement, (Hansard, 22nd November 2017, c.1050)

20 December 2017