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What does the future hold for plastic packaging? (I)

May 22,2023

The unpalatable fact is the UK still produces too much waste, and we don’t recycle enough of it. Currently, in the UK, we’re falling short of our 2050 target to prepare 65% of municipal waste for re-use and recycling, and plastic packaging is an important part of this story. As of 2021, the UK has a recovery/recycling rate of 44% for plastic packaging, while materials such as aluminium (75%) and paper and cardboard (70%) are much higher.

It is easy to point at plastic packaging to say the material is a problem, to get caught up in the good-bad debate that has been polarising public opinion and media commentary. In reality, when items are made from reusable and  recyclable plastics  and managed correctly, they provide us with sustainable, cost-efficient, and durable packaging solutions.

At Biffa, we see the whole plastics picture. From guiding brands in their packaging choices to collecting, sorting, and processing of millions of tonnes of plastic from households and businesses for recycling. Every year we recycle 151 kt of plastic at our leading recycling facilities, transforming waste into material which is used to make new products.

Here are five ways plastic packaging can be better recycled to build a positive future for plastic:

Use more recyclable plastics

WRAP’s 2022 update to its annual recycling tracker shows that 90% of UK citizens regularly recycle when asked about all types of materials. However, the recovery rate of plastic packaging is 44% because much of it (for example, flexible plastics or pouches) is not recyclable or reusable. While recycling is part of the nation’s day-to-day activities – and the motivation and behaviour are clear – the packaging used for many products does not support recycling.


What can be done about this? People and businesses need information to guide and support their choices. From businesses’ product design and packaging decisions to consumers’ purchase choices, understanding is needed at every stage of production and purchase. If people know more about the different types of plastic and the environmental and economic impact of their choices, a change in behaviour could be more likely, all the while increasing the quality of   recyclable material  by creating separate waste streams.

More capacity and infrastructure

When recyclable plastic packaging leaves the UK, the carbon cost of transportation leads to more emissions compared to on-shore recycling. There’s a clear argument for more plastic to be recycled in the UK; to support green investment, infrastructure, economic growth and jobs.

An end to the export of plastic packaging would mean the UK must recycle the 0.7mtpa of plastic packaging waste a year currently exported. This would take at least 12 polymer plants with a minimum 55,000-tonne processing capacity. Biffa’s 57,000te capacity recycling plant in Seaham brought 100 full-time jobs to the local region. Investment in infrastructure benefits both the economy and local communities, in addition to the environment.

Although the Government has reiterated its commitment to banning export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries, there is still more we can do to keep plastic within the UK circular economy and encourage packaging producers to use more recyclable material.

The Deposit Return Scheme in Scotland, launching August 16th 2023, is an example of how bold legislation can drive investment in and improvements to recycling infrastructure. As the logistics provider for the Scottish scheme, Biffa is developing new facilities to handle increased volumes of materials. The consultation for England, Northern Ireland and Wales is now complete, with the launch date set for 1st October 2025.