Plastic waste in the UK – statistics & facts

Published by Ian Tiseo, Feb 8, 2023


  • Annual plastic waste generation per capita in the UK
    98.66 kg
  • Plastic packaging waste generation in the United Kingdom
    2.5 million tones
  • Recycling rate of UK plastic packaging waste

The world has become dependent on plastics in recent decades due to their relatively cheap production costs, durability, and incredible versatility. Annual global plastics production is now roughly 370 million metric tons per year – an increase of 80 percent since the turn of the century. However, huge amounts of this become waste, with many plastic products thrown out after just one use. These often end up polluting rivers and oceans, causing devastating damage to marine life.
Plastic waste has become a major environmental issue worldwide, with the United Kingdom playing a substantial role in this problem. The UK consumes an enormous amount of plastics every year and is considered to be the second-biggest producer of plastic waste per capita in the world.

The UK generates a huge amount of plastic waste

It is estimated that UK households throw away a staggering 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging a year, averaging 66 items per household per week. These are mainly food packaging items, such as snack bags and fruit and veg trays. In 2021, 2.5 million metric tons of plastic packaging waste were generated in the UK. Globally, the UK is believed to be the fifth-largest producer of single-use plastic waste, with an estimated three million metric tons generated in 2019. This averaged 44 kilograms per person.

What happens to plastic waste in the UK?

44.2 percent of UK plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2021. However, recycling rates also include energy recovery from incineration and plastic waste exports. It is believed that almost half of all UK plastic waste is incinerated for energy recovery, with 25 percent landfilled and just 12 percent recycled in UK reprocessing facilities. The remaining waste is shipped abroad. Turkey is now the main destination for UK plastic waste materials, importing 123,000 metric tons in 2021. The UK lacks the infrastructure to deal with the enormous amounts of plastic waste it produces each year, so has relied on exports for many years. The recent bans and restrictions on waste imports by countries such as China has placed increased pressure on how the UK manages its waste. The UK government has been urged to invest in recycling infrastructure and new recycling technologies.

The war on plastic waste pollution

Plastics can take centuries to decompose, which is why there are growing concerns in the UK about plastic waste pollution. The UK government has introduced several policies in a bid to combat the scourge of plastic waste, such as the single-use carrier bag charge. This has significantly reduced the number of single-use plastic carrier bags issued by supermarkets. There have been calls for a ban on other problematic single-use plastics, such as cutlery, plates, stirrers, and coffee cups, with Scotland becoming the first part of the UK to implement such a ban. A deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers will also be introduced across the UK in the coming years, with the hopes of incentivizing people to recycle. Additionally, a tax was introduced in 2022 on plastic packaging that doesn’t consist of at least 30 percent recycled content. The UK Plastic Pact has also helped reduce the amount of plastic packaging used by supermarkets and other businesses.