Plastic bottles: Turning Back the Plastic Tide Contents

2Plastic Bottle Waste in the UK

Scale of Plastic Bottle Waste

7.RECOUP (RECycling of Used Plastics Limited) has calculated that UK households use 13 billion plastic bottles a year, including beverage bottles, milk bottles and toiletries bottles.11 Most plastic bottles are made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) whilst milk and toiletries bottles are more usually made from HDPE (high density polyethylene). We heard that, of the 13 billion plastic bottles used each year, 7.7 billion are plastic water bottles. Consumption of water in plastic bottles has doubled in the last 15 years according to the #OneLess Campaign. The average person in the UK will use 150 plastic water bottles every year. In London, usage is 175 plastic water bottles per person per year.12

8.Plastic bottles make up 26% of total plastic packaging. Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that global plastics production and use is set to double over the next 20 years, and quadruple to 318 million tonnes by 2050.13 We received evidence from a range of major plastic bottle producers including the British Plastics Federation, the British Soft Drinks Association and Coca-Cola European Partners.14 Coca-Cola European Partners produce around 25% of soft drinks and approximately 41,000 tonnes of plastic packaging in the UK each year.15

9.The UK recycles 57% of the 13 billion plastic bottles used each year. The introduction of local authority household recycling in 2001 saw the recycling rate of plastic bottles rise from 1% to the current level. Over 99% of local authorities now provide a collection for plastic bottles. However, we heard that since 2012, the recycling rate has plateaued at around 57–58%.16

10.In the UK, 5.5 billion plastic bottles escape household recycling collection every year. They are littered, landfilled or incinerated. Of these bottles, 55% (approximately 3 billion) are incinerated and 45% (approximately 2.5 billion) are landfilled every year.17 The waste hierarchy, ranks waste disposal methods according to their impact on the environment, incineration is the second worst waste management process and landfill is the worst. Eunomia Research and Consulting told us that landfill and incineration of plastic bottles produces approximately 233,000 tonnes of CO2e emissions a year.18


11.700,000 plastic bottles are littered every day. Keep Britain Tidy’s 2014/15 Local Environmental Quality Survey of England found that soft drinks litter (including cans, bottles and cartons) was the third most prevalent type of litter, found on more than 52% of sites studied. Of the 7,200 sites recorded, 24% had plastic bottles litter.19 Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage explained the scale of plastic bottle litter:

The latest figures estimate that 700,000 plastic beverage containers are littered every single day in the UK. That is perhaps hardly surprising, given we use 38.5 million single-use plastic bottles in this country every day and only 57% of those are recycled.20

12.This suggests that 1.8% or 234 million plastic bottles are littered in the UK each year. This litter blights our towns, cities, and countryside, where it poses a threat to wildlife.

13.We have heard that large litter items such as plastic bottles often act as ‘beacons of litter’ - a normalising cue which encourages further littering. Keep Britain Tidy commented on their Centre for Social Innovation’s field experiment findings:

Therefore, we assert that while plastic bottles (and indeed coffee cups) are not the most littered items in the country, they are one of the most visible items littered, with instantly recognisable branding, and their presence creates disproportionately more littering as a result.21

14.The field experiment involved using test and control sites; some littered with large, highly visible types of litter, such as drinks containers and crisp packets, and others with no litter, or only small types such as cigarettes and chewing gum. Keep Britain Tidy’s Centre for Social Innovation found that the visibility of large litter “appears to prompt others (either consciously or subconsciously) to do the same with their [similar] items.”22 They suggest a policy prioritisation:

Drinks bottles are likely to accumulate more quickly than any other litter type. It is therefore recommended that these items should be prioritised for cleansing.23

15.DEFRA’s Litter Strategy for England published in April 2017 reported that 28–30% of people perceive litter and rubbish lying around to be a problem in their area and 81% of people are angry and frustrated by the amount of litter they see.24 The Litter Strategy stated that direct costs (i.e. the cost of clearing litter and enforcing the law) cost local authorities £778 million in 2015/16.25 A recent House of Commons Library briefing on litter calculated the indirect costs of litter. While this information is not specific to plastic bottles, as beverage containers are the third most common type of litter, it is relevant to the issue of plastic bottle litter. It said:

Indirect costs are harder to quantify. In particular, there are health costs associated with infections from contaminated litter, accidents caused by litter, environmental damage, injuries to wildlife, and loss of tourism. There is also some evidence of a correlation between crime and litter.26

16.Derek Robertson from Keep Scotland Beautiful also emphasised the link between social deprivation and litter:

We released a report this week that showed that in areas of deprivation environmental quality was in greater decline than in more affluent areas … we have no doubt that there is evidence that communities that are in most need are the ones that are suffering the most from environmental decline.27

17.The UK uses 38.5 million plastic bottles every day, of which 15 million are not recycled. 700,000 plastic bottles are littered every day, encouraging more littering and causing damage to natural habitats and human well-being. Plastic bottle waste is not simply a recycling or environmental issue; it is a social issue with considerable direct and indirect costs for taxpayers through litter picking and healthcare.

Impact on the Marine Environment

18.The Green Alliance have stated that beverage litter makes up a third of all marine plastic pollution.28 The issue of plastic pollution in the marine environment has captured the attention of the general public. The BBC’s Blue Planet Series and Sky’s Ocean Rescue campaign have raised interest in marine environments and prompted awareness of how single-use disposable plastic pollutes our oceans. Fiona Llewellyn, project manager of the #OneLess campaign, highlighted the growing public interest in plastic bottle marine pollution as a starting point for consideration of wider plastic pollution:

People are finding inspiration in the ocean messages and using the single-use plastic bottle as almost a flagship species for the wider issues of marine plastic pollution. Having something that people can see, touch and feel in their day-to-day lives and understanding the actions they are taking, that they can do something about, is quite empowering, which is what we are finding.29

19.We heard that plastic litter often finds its way from the land into our seas, leading to around 12.2 million tonnes of plastic waste being deposited in the marine environment each year around the world.30 We also heard that 10% of litter in the Thames is plastic bottles.31 Dr Sue Kinsey from the Marine Conservation Society explained how our rivers and seas become polluted by plastic bottles:

About 80% of that litter is coming from the land itself. For example, this country is a very small wet and windy island, as people have seen recently, and that litter is getting there through the wind action, it is going into our rivers and then being swept out into the sea, and some of it is being dropped directly on to our beaches and then swept out to sea. Once it is out there, it is incredibly difficult to collect. The most effective and cost efficient way is to stop it getting there in the first place because once it is in our seas and oceans it starts breaking down into microplastics.32

20.At sea, plastic waste is categorised into macro (over 20mm diameter), meso (5–20mm) and micro (under 5mm) plastics. Plastic bottles are categorised as macro and cause a threat to wildlife. They also contribute to the environmental damage caused by microplastics, which was highlighted in the previous EAC’s report Environmental Impacts of Microplastics. The Marine Conservation Society explained in their written evidence:

Plastic items break down in the marine environment leading eventually to microplastics. Both macro and microplastics cause harm through entanglement and ingestion, as well as being able to transfer toxins directly to the animals that ingest the plastics and potentially up the food chain to us as consumers.33

21.Hugo Tagholm from Surfers Against Sewage was concerned about the impact of marine plastic pollution on human health. He told us that “the average seafood consumer in the UK will be ingesting about 11,000 plastic particles every year already. Those are figures to be very worried about.”34

22.In the Committee’s report into the Environmental Impact of Microplastics in the last Parliament, we concluded that “the most effective solution to tackling microplastic pollution in the marine environment is to tackle it at the source.”35 Under UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, the UK has recognised the threat of pollution to ocean ecosystems, and has committed to protect the marine environment from sources of plastic pollution. One SDG 14 target states:

By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.36

23.Given that we have heard that 80% of plastic pollution in the sea is from land-based activities, we are concerned that the UK will miss this target. In their written evidence to the inquiry, DEFRA stated that their UK Marine Strategy Part 3 (December 2015) sets out a “comprehensive set of measures” for the reduction of marine litter.37 However the Marine Strategy makes no detailed targets for the reduction of marine litter and noted that there “is a limited understanding of current levels, properties and impacts of marine litter.”38 The UN is now exploring more ambitious targets than Sustainable Development Goal 14. UN Oceans Chief Lisa Svensson recently described the rising tide of plastic waste in the ocean as a “planetary crisis.”39 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.40

24.Following the weak analysis of marine litter made in the UK Marine Strategy Part Three, we recommend that the Government set out a timescale for publishing a more accurate assessment of the current levels, properties and impacts of marine litter and the steps it will take to protect our oceans from plastic pollution. The rising tide of plastic waste in the ocean has been described by UN Oceans Chief as a “planetary crisis” and there is increasing public appetite for urgent action in this area. The Government has committed to protecting the marine environment from all kinds of pollution, including plastic pollution, under UN Sustainable Development Goal 14. However, the Government has only recently begun to address this by exploring the potential of a tax on single-use plastics. We have heard that tackling plastic pollution at source is the most effective way to mitigate the damage caused by larger plastic items, such as plastic bottles, as well as microplastics. The Marine Strategy Part One found that “significant amounts of litter appear in our seas and on our beaches”, bringing environmental and economic damage. At the very least the Government should increase clean-up resources to coastal areas, where, by function of tide or topography there is a large plastic pollution problem. We urge the Government to introduce a ‘Coastal Clean-up’ fund to support the removal of plastic from our beaches and seas.

11 RECycling of Used Plastics Limited, 2017 RECOUP Household Collection Survey (June 2017)

12 #OneLess Campaign (PKG0083A)

13 Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics (January 2016)

14 British Soft Drinks Association (PKG0069A), British Plastics Federation and Plastics Europe (PKG0106A)

15 Coca-Cola European Partners and Coca-Cola Great Britain (PKG0061A and PKG0033B)

16 RECycling of Used Plastics Limited, 2017 RECOUP Household Collection Survey (June 2017)

17 Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd (PKG0086A)

18 As above.

19 Keep Britain Tidy (PKG0084A)

20 Q162

21 Keep Britain Tidy (PKG0084A)

22 Centre for Social Innovation, Journal of Litter and Environmental Quality (Volume 1, Number 1, June 2017)

23 As above.

24 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Litter Strategy for England (April 2017)

25 As above, Q355, Q356

26 House of Commons Library, Litter, Briefing Paper No. CBP06984 (July 2017)

27 Q172

28 The Green Alliance (PKG0026B)

29 Q174

30 #OneLess Campaign (PKG0083A), Q173

31 #OneLess Campaign (PKG0083A)

32 Q173

33 Marine Conservation Society (PGK0074A)

34 Q173

35 Environmental Audit Committee, Environmental Impact of Microplastics, HC 179, Fourth Report of the Session 2016–17, August 2016

36 United Nations, Sustainable Development Goal 14 Life Below Water, Target 1

37 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (PKG0110A)

38 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK Marine Strategy Part 3: UK Programme of Measures (December 2015)

20 December 2017