5 surprising things we learned from the biggest ever household plastic count

Nearly a quarter of a million people counted their plastic waste for one week, and the results are fascinating. Here's what we learned.

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After weeks of number crunching, The Big Plastic Count results are finally here!

Nearly a quarter of a million people counted their household plastic packaging waste for one week, and the results are fascinating. Here are the most surprising things we’ve learnt…

1. UK households throw away approximately 96 billion pieces of plastic packaging a year

That’s a mindblowing, absurd number. It’s so difficult to imagine just how big 96 billion is, but it works out around 11 million piece of plastic per hour, or 3,000 every second. It’s staggering.

Participants in The Big Plastic Count threw away 6,437,813 pieces of plastic packaging in just one week, which means on average each household threw away 66 pieces. This amounts to 3,432 pieces a year, and we arrive at 96 billion pieces a year for the whole country by applying this average to all UK households.

The message couldn’t be clearer: too much plastic waste is leaving our homes.

2. The vast majority of it is food and drink packaging

83% of the plastic packaging waste we throw away comes from food and drink packaging.

If you’re a supermarket shopper, maybe this doesn’t come as a surprise, as the shelves are so overflowing with single-use plastic packaging that it’s very difficult to avoid it. This is especially the case for anyone with a disability or restricted mobility who may rely on pre-prepared food for their independence and quality of life.

Supermarket giants sell most of our groceries, so it’s safe to say that they are responsible for an awful lot of our plastic packaging waste. We’ve had many promises from supermarkets to reduce their plastic footprint, but this actually increased across the top ten supermarkets between 2017 and 2019.

Voluntary commitments are not working.

3. Just 12% of our household plastic packaging waste is recycled

Millions of us do our bit by recycling – it’s part of everyday life in the UK. But we estimate that only 12% of our household plastic packaging waste is actually recycled in the UK. A minority.

This number might be disheartening, but it’s still important to recycle and we should all continue to do so. But we can’t avoid the fact that recycling alone won’t solve the plastic crisis – we are throwing away so much, we’ll never be able to recycle it all, and much of it is never recyclable in the first place.

It’s vital that we reduce the amount of plastic produced at source by turning off the plastic tap, and rapidly transitioning to reusable packaging which caters to everyone’s needs, including those with disabilities.

4. The rest is burned, landfilled or exported

The vast majority of the UK’s household plastic packaging waste is either shipped overseas, or landfilled or incinerated in the UK.

How can the UK claim to be a world leader in managing our waste while this is happening?

We’re producing so much plastic packaging waste that we can’t cope with it ourselves, so 17% of it is exported to other countries to deal with. Greenpeace investigators have previously revealed how this waste may be dumped and burned illegally, creating environmental and human health crises in countries around the world. It’s waste colonialism.

A quarter of our waste ends up in landfill, where it slowly degrades and releases toxins and microplastics, which can pollute the air and waterways – with grave consequences for neighboring communities and natural environments.

And almost half (46%) is burnt in incinerators, which also place local people at risk from the toxic gasses released. And we can’t forget that plastic is made from fossil fuels, so burning it releases greenhouse gasses that are fueling the climate crisis.

We wouldn’t need to rely upon these dirty, polluting methods of disposing of plastic packaging waste if we didn’t produce so much of it in the first place.

5. The majority of plastic we throw away is soft plastic

Just over half of the pieces of plastic thrown away during The Big Plastic Count were soft plastics and plastic film – used in everyday items like crisp packets, bread bags and toilet roll wrap. Soft plastic is notoriously difficult to recycle – meaning just 13% of local authorities collect it.

Supermarkets have tried to fill this gap, through the recent nationwide roll-out of soft plastic take-back schemes. These allow shoppers to drop off plastic waste in-store for recycling, and have proved popular (but are not always accessible for people with disabilities or mobility issues who are unable to visit a store in person). However, an investigation into Tesco’s take-back scheme revealed that some plastic was being exported for incineration or landfill, rather than being recycled. Our recycling systems cannot effectively deal with soft plastics.

What next?

These results paint a dire picture of the UK’s plastic use and waste management systems.

The UK’s plastic crisis is even worse than anyone imagined – we cannot cope with the amount of plastic waste generated – and too much focus has been placed on recycling to solve it. We’re never going to be able to recycle our way out of this mess, and pretending that recycling is a silver bullet is simply industry greenwash.

The government must step in with tough measures to drive a reduction in plastic production and a transition to a circular economy built around materials that can be reused and recycled many times over. This means they need to:

  • Set an ambitious, legally binding single-use plastic reduction target under the environment act, to cut single-use plastic by 50% by 2025. All reusable alternatives to single-use plastic must be universally designed to work for everyone’s needs, and decisions must be informed by the disabled community
  • Immediately implement an all-in Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles, to encourage reuse, and set new Extended Producer Responsibility Requirements to incentivise a transition to reusable packaging

At the same time, the government must tackle the catastrophic social and environmental consequences of waste exports and incineration, by:

  • Banning all plastic waste exports by 2025.
  • Setting an immediate moratorium on building new incinerators or upgrades of old ones.

The Big Plastic Count has provided overwhelming evidence of the UK’s plastic crisis. Neither this evidence, nor the 248,957 people who gathered it can be ignored. It is time for the government to act.

What's next?