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Toby Howell AIEMA BA PGDip

Talking Rubbish: Britain's Problem with Waste

Discover the current problem Britain has with recycled waste and how it can spiral into a waste crisis. Uncover how Britain could look to escape the problem by looking oversees. Read more below.

August 2022

Let's start with an interesting question: How much thought do you put into what goes into your bin? Are you one to agonise over what goes into the recycling? Or do you chuck everything in one waste disposal? 

Whatever your tendencies, understanding how our waste is dealt with and the after-effects the disposal presents might be revealing, especially when it comes to one of our most highly dependent materials; plastic. 

A recent Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic investigation found that UK households throw out almost 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging each year. If you think that's a lot, it's because it is. 

How did it get to this point? How did it get this severe?

These are the questions this blog will look to answer. Readers are invited to join me for an investigation into a brief history of recycling in Britain. We will analyse the emergence of recycling in the UK and how it gradually grew to become what we know it as today. This piece will also look to uncover the actual state of Britain's plastic waste and how to improve it. We will look abroad to examine how Britain could learn from their international friends. We will uncover why certain countries are banning single-use plastics and how this could improve the influx of plastic waste in Britain. 

So, where better to begin than the beginning? Britain's complicated relationship with waste harks back decades. 


It was in the 1950s that the term 'make do and mend' became firmly embedded into the fabric of the British ideal. Years and years of wartime austerity transformed British society into a microcosm focused on only taking what was essential. Britain was tested, and families were stretched. Rationing exemplified the attitude of the nation. The idea of showcasing the proud, British stiff upper lip to adversity was in full swing. 

It was from this that the initial spark for recycling in Britain originated. The idea of giving back to society was already firmly entrenched post WW2. However, where rationing required society to restrict its consumption, the earliest forms of recycling required society to personify restraint. 

For years British streets were paraded with individuals such as the Rag and Bone man and the Pop Man. The Rag and Bone Man went from street to street, offering to buy old clothes, iron and other materials. He would sell these items or repair them for other uses. Meanwhile, the Pop Man would be known to sell bottled drinks from street to street. He would later offer to buy back used bottles, reducing the need to chuck them away. 

These kinds of figures were firmly engraved into the psyche of British pop culture. It was the notion that everything had at least two uses, that you should proactively find how to use something once you are done initially using it. Rag and Bone men were at the heart of establishing this principle in British society.

One of the most iconic and successful British comedies, Steptoe and Son, was based on Rag and Bone men. The notion of recycling and its importance was slowly becoming engrained into British society. 

The 1960s are known to be a time of peace and love. Events like Woodstock promoted friendlier, unified attitudes towards war, drugs and the environment. The seed of greener practice was planted. But a decade later, general awareness of the environment was sparked by Earth Day. An event meant to showcase the potential environmental problems brought on by the accumulation of waste. In turn, it also provided a foundational platform for systematically introducing a sterner recycling plan. 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle was born. 

But coinciding with the emergence of reusing items was our reliance on plastic. If we take a second and evaluate our relationship with plastic, it would seemingly appear one-sided. After all, our dependence on it is ever present in shops and homes up and down the British Isles. Our historical demand for plastic suggests that plastic is a victim of its success. It is incredibly cheap and easy to use and throwing it away is easy. We've only really begun to evaluate the effect of our relationship with plastic in the last few decades. But to those looking at our extensive use of the material, it would be easy to assume, as described, that humanity's dependence on plastic is incredibly one-sided. 

However, this isn't the case. 

After we use single-use plastic, the reliance is turned on humanity. After its use. we must collect, store and hopefully eliminate the plastic. This is where the problem is swiftly becoming a crisis. 

Single-use plastic is swiftly becoming a crisis across the UK. 


What a waste

An investigation by Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic found that UK households throw out almost 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging each year. That is a vast number, but if all the plastic could be recycled, then we wouldn't have a problem; the problem is that it can't all be recycled. 

Let's first separate that 100 billion number and look a little closer.

83% of the plastic comes from food and drink packaging. The question is whether this should be a surprise or not. If you visit your local supermarket and look at the products on the shelves, how many products are packaged in single-use plastics? You might be shocked at how high that number is. Herein lies the question; Should food and drink companies do more to reduce the circulation of single-use plastics on their products? According to Greenpeace, much more needs to be done. They say despite promises of a general reduction, single-use plastic products rose in 2018.

The investigation also unearthed another worrying find. Greenpeace alleges that only 12% of British plastic is recycled, with only a marginal amount actually eligible for recycling. These finds have led Greenpeace to conclude that "recycling alone won’t solve the plastic crisis – [Britain is] throwing away so much, we’ll never be able to recycle it all, and much of it is never recyclable in the first place". 

If only 12% of our used plastic is recycled, where does the other 88% go? Well, 25% of it ends in landfill, approximately 46% is burnt, and 17% is exported to foreign countries. 

The British Plastics Federation (BPF) has stated that Britain exported "61% of its plastic packaging for recycling in 2019". According to the BPF, Britain cannot cope with the amount of waste we produce. They claim Britain does not have the capacity or infrastructure to deal with it. In 2018, the BBC concluded that Britain exported approximately 611,000 tonnes of plastic to foreign countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia. 

Investigations have tried to discover what happens to waste shipments (exportation of waste). The country that took over from China in 2018 as being the largest importer of waste from the UK was Malaysia. Some accounts suggest Malaysia themselves do not have the means to deal with the waste. Mageswari Sangaralingam, of the Consumers' Association of Penang and for Friends of the Earth, Malaysia, spoke to the BBC in 2019. He said, "Malaysia [cannot] process all the imported waste". Sangaralingam suggested that Malaysia was being treated as a low-quality waste dumping ground. This problem is only amplified by the poor quality of the waste, which means that it would most likely end up at a landfill anyway.

Malaysia swiftly stopped importing that vast amount of British waste, and Turkey took over as Britain's biggest waste exporter. In 2020, Turkey claimed approximately 210,000 tonnes of British plastic waste. 

According to work from the University of Birmingham (UoB), the "UK’s forecasted domestic capacity for recycling plastic packaging is 700,000 tonnes/year". This represents approximately 20% of Britain's estimated annual tonnes of plastic packaging waste. 

The UoB conclude that Britain is "not only exporting [British] problems, [Britain] is exporting them to countries we know are less able to deal with them. Stopping this practice is in our best interest, as mismanaged plastic waste has become a global problem".

Fly-tipping is a significant problem in the UK too. The act of illegally dumping household waste is difficult to curb proactively. Often local authorities are only able to react after fly-tipping takes place. But we do have some numbers to crunch. A report into waste and fly-tipping found some extremely worrying figures.

The report estimates that between one million and six million tonnes of waste in England are handled annually outside the legal system. The effect of illegal waste handling cannot be quantified entirely. as George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian, "Illegally dumped waste contaminates the soil, the water and – when it is deliberately burned or spontaneously combusts – the air with a range of toxins. Most of which are likely to be unmonitored and unrecorded. The more hazardous the waste, the greater the incentive to cut corners"

Throwing away bad practice

For nearly twenty years, Germany has prioritised recyclable materials over single-use plastics in shops and the broader culture. Taking that bit further, in 2021, Germany banned single-use plastics in the German market. In Japan, there is the growing emergence of the 'eco-town', in which great strides are made to recycle up to 80% of its household waste. Japan is leading the way with innovative strategies for dealing with plastic waste. In 2016, Japan discovered Ideonella sakaiensis, a bacterium that feeds off the polymer that manufacturers plastic containers. Scientists say that the bacteria can completely break down the plastic after six weeks. They also say it offers a reasonably efficient response to the waste problem but relies upon the continued usage of single-use plastics.

If we cannot rely upon plastic-eating bacteria to reduce our plastic waste, what can we rely upon? Well, maybe the practices of greener countries for a start. From what this blog has investigated, there are several ways we could lower the amount of plastic waste we produce. 

The UK Government could limit or eliminate the circulation of single-use plastics, which would prove to stop the problem at its source. This strategy would affect businesses, big and small, on how they package their products. However, the effect would be immediate. Germany's single-use plastic ban is still in its infancy, and data concerning its impact is still being collected. However, the world has noticed. 

According to a study from Ipsos and Plastic Free July, three out of four people worldwide support a ban on single-use plastics. There is momentum towards a potential ban. To sweeten the deal for anyone reluctant, incentives could encourage more households and corporate businesses to limit or curb their reliance on single-use plastics. 


Britain should look abroad, not to export plastic waste but to learn more sustainable and longer-term ways to confront our waste. Germany's ban on commercialised single-use plastics has garnered international acclaim, with more countries joining the movement. If the UK trialled a limit on commercialised single-use plastics (such as bottled drinks), waste exportation costs would be minimised because plastic waste would be significantly reduced. Therefore, curbing single-use plastic would lower public spending whilst greatly benefiting the environment. In June 2022, Scotland took the step to become the first place in the UK to ban certain single-use plastics, such as bottled drinks. A widely acclaimed Westminster-led deposit return scheme has been lobbied in recent years. It would mean consumers have a direct stake in the responsible recycling practice. The scheme, was however, shelved in early 2022. Scotland have postponed their own deposit return scheme until August 2023.

Plastic is a silent killer, especially when illegally dumped. Interestingly, plastic forms the blurred middle ground of materials that people think - but don't know if – it can be recycled. Millions of homes across Britain misjudge whether their plastic packaging belongs in the recycling bin. It is easier to just chuck it in, or conversely, to put it in the general waste bin. 

We all need to do more to understand what belongs in what bin. It may seem menial; however, a WRAP report found up to 85% of people put the wrong items in the wrong bins

This all comes down to how much we want to effect positive change; Do you want an effective recycling system that ensures global waste is reduced?

And now we find ourselves straight back to that opening question; How much thought do you put into what goes into your bin?


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