Is the UK ready for the changes to how we deal with plastic waste?



Richard Barker, Development Director at Peel NRE, looks at the policy changes coming in the waste sector and why this will increase the need for more recycling and reprocessing infrastructure.

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced in January this year new interim targets for 2028 to reduce different types of waste, including plastic. This aims to reduce residual municipal plastic waste produced per person by 45% from 2019 levels, with the overall aim of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

The targets were set out in the Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) 2023, which is the first revision of the 25-Year Environment Plan published five years earlier. It highlights the challenges facing the sector since 2018, with the COVID-19 pandemic having a significant impact on recycling rates as the country reverted to single-use products like facemasks and test kits.

Between 2019 and 2020 there was a large increase in residual waste, as the household recycling rate fell by 1.5 percentage points and total waste from households increased by 0.5 million tonnes.

There are several key issues associated with plastic packaging recycling in the UK.

RECOUP – the UK plastics resource efficiency and recycling charity – estimates that in 2022, UK households generated a total of 1,432kt of plastic packaging waste, made up of 635kt bottles, 297kt pots, tubs and trays, and 308kt plastic films and flexibles.

There are several key issues associated with plastic packaging recycling in the UK. Firstly, the rate of recycling is relatively low, with less than 50% of the total waste in the UK being recycled or recovered.

There are many reasons for this, from the complexity of the process (as plastic packaging can be made up of multiple layers and types of plastic, which ultimately makes it challenging to recycle), to variations in collection systems and a lack of suitable infrastructure.

Consequently, the UK sends over 60% of its plastics abroad for processing, exporting the problem of plastic waste to countries that often cannot dispose of this waste sustainably.

The EIP 2023 has set out several measures designed to tackle the issue. 

Extended producer responsibility (EPR)


Defra has reformed the current packaging producer responsibility system to incentivise producers to make better more sustainable decisions in the design and use of packaging. The introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was originally set to see the full costs of managing packaging waste shift to producers in 2024, with companies required to collect and report data for 2023 onwards.

However, in August 2023 Defra announced a 12-month delay to packaging fees which will now come into force in 2025. Defra has stated that this time will be used to launch a “design review” of the system, however, the department was quick to clarify that the review is on the administration of the scheme, not the overall EPR system.

In August 2023, Defra announced a 12-month delay to packaging fees which will now come into force in 2025.

Packaging waste recycling targets will be set for six packaging materials – including plastic – each year from 2024 to 2030. The idea is that this will create a more circular economy for packaging where greater quantities of recyclable waste are reprocessed into high-quality materials that can be used again.

Research by RECOUP on EPR’s impact on seven paper and packaging recycling programs worldwide revealed promising results. In British Columbia, Belgium, Spain, Netherlands, and South Korea, target materials’ collection and recycling surged to over 75%, while Portugal and Quebec achieved over 60% recycling rates.

Consistent collections


To improve messaging around what can and cannot be recycled, there are plans to introduce a consistent household and business waste collection policy. Launching a consultation in 2021, Defra said the changes would “end the confusion for millions of homes and businesses having different collections in different areas, helping households recycle more and send less waste to landfill”.

This will ensure that the same recyclable waste streams, including plastic, are collected for recycling, although plastic films and micro-films will have a two-year exemption. While final plans are still awaited the changes are likely to see an increase in the amount of plastics that are recycled in the UK.

The changes are likely to see an increase in the amount of plastics that are recycled in the UK.

Defra also plans to mandate recycling labelling for packaged products by 2026 except for plastic films and flexible which will follow by 2027. As well as potentially increasing the amount of plastics that are recycled it’s hoped it will improve the quality of recycling by preventing non-recyclable items like crisp packets, toothpaste tubes, and juice cartons, mistakenly being placed in the recycle bin.

When announcing the review of the administration of the EPR system Defra revealed that plans for consistent recycling collections for households will come in after the implementation of the EPR scheme, citing the current economic environment as one of the reasons for the delay.

Deposit return scheme (DRS) 


The UK goes through an estimated 14 billion plastic drink bottles every year. Defra plans to implement a deposit return scheme (DRS) in October 2025, which aims to encourage consumers to return empty beverage containers like plastic bottles.

The current recycling rates for drink containers have plateaued at 70%. However, with the proposed deposit system, where consumers pay a deposit upon purchase and receive a refund upon return, officials anticipate a significant improvement, with at least 90% of plastic bottles and aluminium and steel cans being collected.

RECOUP data shows that thirteen European Union (EU) countries, including Croatia, Slovakia, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, have already adopted a DRS scheme, with positive outcomes. In 2021, Estonia’s implementation of the DRS scheme led to the return of 293 million deposit items (plastic, glass bottles, and metal cans), and many other countries have also reported similarly favourable results.

Driving the need for more infrastructure

plastic bottles

The package of policies will drive reductions in plastic packaging and promote more recycling and reprocessing, with the knock-on effect being the need for more investment in infrastructure to ensure the industry can manage the revised waste streams in the coming years, and to sufficient quality.

At Peel NRE, we developed a vision for “Plastic Parks” across the UK which would revolutionise the way that plastic waste is currently handled, and we estimate that over £7.5bn will need to be invested in infrastructure to deal with plastic waste over the next 10 years.

The idea of the Plastic Park is that we create a new ecosystem where new and existing technologies can be co-located to process plastic waste, inter-trading products and or residues to maximise the levels of recycling and recovery of polymers and alternative products.

The package of policies will drive reductions in plastic packaging and promote more recycling and reprocessing.

The first is planned at our Protos strategic energy and resource hub in Cheshire with the plans being consented to last year. It will deal with a wide range of plastic waste materials, creating a hub where a combination of technologies is located to create a symbiotic ecosystem to maximise the plastic that can be recycled or recovered to create high-quality recyclate, oils, gases, heat or electricity.  

However, with new figures showing that recycling rates have flatlined in the UK, hovering around 44%-46 over recent years, more needs to happen quickly. Whilst the Government has consulted on various policy changes, progress has slowed and these delays are causing uncertainty in the market. The recent delays to EPR and consistent collections will only serve to cause uncertainty and frustration for an industry that is looking to plan and invest in much-needed new infrastructure.

We urgently need a clear direction and timeline from Government on if and when these changes will happen, to provide the clarity needed to underpin the significant infrastructure investment that will be required.

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