The UK’s recycling system requires a dramatic overhaul to effectively tackle the issue of plastic waste, according to a new report published by The University of Manchester’s One Bin to Rule Them All project team.
According to the report, titled Tackling Household Plastic Waste: Best Practice for a Circular Plastics Economy , a lack of standardisation across the plastics supply chain is contributing to the UK’s failure to transition to a circular economy.
As the culmination of a three-year £1.5m interdisciplinary ’One Bin to Rule Them All’ project - led by The University of Manchester together with a consortium of over 25 industry partners - the report dissects in-depth research with 30 diverse households in Greater Manchester exploring how consumers engage with recycling.
The report’s findings show that a lack of consistency in plastic packaging composition and messaging around recycling practice is causing confusion among consumers, spurring on chronically low recycling rates as a result. The latest annual figures show just 44.4% of plastic waste generated across the UK was recycled in 2021, according to DEFRA.
This is compounded by the discrepancies in recycling practices between different local authorities. The report estimates that there are 39 differing bin regimes across the UK, as well as 3,500 waste recycling plants with varying capabilities in infrastructure.
To combat this, the authors of the report trialled introducing a ’one bin’ system, which saw households decant all plastic waste - including recyclable and non-recyclable materials - into a single bin unit, in place of sorting into different receptacles. The team of academics then processed the plastic collected across the two-week trial period - which equated to almost 200 pieces of plastic per household - to gain a greater understanding of consumer practice and the general material composition of plastic waste.
The trial found that almost a quarter of the items collected comprised flexible packaging materials, which are often challenging for consumers to recycle. It found that a large-scale standardised approach to the sorting, collection and processing of flexible plastics was critical to improving recycling rates.
In response to the findings, Dr Helen Holmes, Social Science Lecturer at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at The University of Manchester and lead author, has called for an urgent overhaul of the plastics supply chain, to prioritise targeted standardisation and consistency in three overlapping priority areas - materials, infrastructure and messaging.
The report comes at a crucial point in UK plastic policy following the introduction of the plastic packaging tax in 2022, and with the Government’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) policies - measures designed to boost recycling - set to roll out over the next two years.
Dr Helen Holmes, Social Science Researcher at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at The University of Manchester, said: "Our research shows that there exists a strong desire amongst most consumers to recycle properly - yet they are limited by a combination of unclear messaging and the complexity of the system. Compounding this, it is a postcode lottery as to what sorts of packaging can or cannot be recycled in a specific area, with capability and capacity varying at waste processing plants across the country.
"A ’one bin’ system, supported by the introduction of clearer rules on material composition for producers and targeted investment in waste infrastructure for plastic recycling, could play a huge role in simplifying the process. Our analysis has also involved exploring the relative sustainability of different forms of plastic packaging and mapping out the best pathways for processing them. The implications for industry and policymakers are clear - we need greater standardisation and consistency across manufacturing and processing."
A monumental step-change in the way we deal with our waste requires cross-sector collaboration between material manufacturers, local authorities and central government. This is a real challenge - however, the severity of the issue dictates that it can no longer be ignored if we are to truly achieve our sustainability goals.
In response to the findings, Helen has called for an overhaul of the full plastic supply chain, as well as for the recycling system to be simplified using knowledge gained from studying consumer practices. "As consumers, we may often feel blamed for our excess packaging waste and the dirge of single-use plastic. On the contrary, our research shows that the majority of households want to do the right thing - indeed, many of the households we interviewed had found alternative routes of recycling for items the local authority would not recycle."
"However, consumers are limited by complex and unclear messaging, restrictions regarding what can and cannot be recycled and the huge array of packaging. Our trial shows that a ’one bin’ approach across the UK would improve recycling by simplifying waste management for consumers, driven by standardisation across the system. It’s clear that the willingness for change is there - now the onus is on industry and government to capitalise on this enthusiasm with action."
As part of the report, the team has developed an interactive tool that helps industry and policy stakeholders to think practically about what greater standardisation and consistency across manufacturing and processing will involve. It provides information and guidance on plastic waste and allows for a clear overview of the currently most sustainable choices for different plastics.
Funding for the project was granted as part of UK Research & Innovation’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund - Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging - this aims to establish a portfolio of academic-led research and development to address known problems and knowledge gaps in relation to plastic packaging.