Recycling plastics: Is the UK behind Europe?

Written by: RWW | Published:

The recovery of plastics in Europe has improved over the last five years, however as demand for plastics increases, the amount of post-consumer plastics waste has been increasing. With the disposal rate at 38.1%, action needs to be taken to reach the zero plastics to landfill target in Europe by 2020, urges Andy Watkins, commercial director, Wrights Plastics.

Plastic production in Europe has reached 58 million tonnes, producing 20.4% of the world’s total output. Packaging represents the largest application for the plastics industry and represents 39.4% of the total plastics demand in Europe. Packaging weights have, however, been decreasing with plastic bottles dropping in weight by 7.5% and plastic film containing on average 11-15% less material. Despite this, per capita quantities of packaging are increasing across the EU-27 member states. 

A staggering 77% of Europe’s plastic waste is generated by just seven countries with Germany producing the most at over 2.5 million tonnes in 2007. Italy is in second position and the UK is in third, producing over two million tonnes of plastic waste in 2007. France, Spain, Netherlands and Poland form the rest of the top seven. It makes sense that the largest contributors to plastic waste can also make the biggest difference to Europe’s statistics and must therefore lead the way which includes us in the UK. 

Despite being the top producer of plastic waste, Germany is second only to Switzerland when it comes to total recycling and energy recovery rates, but unfortunately Spain, Poland and the UK are in the bottom half of the league meaning we have work to do. 

In fact, the UK is the worst of the seven major contributors. We came 22 out of 29 countries when it comes to recycling and energy recovery. 

Sadly, 69% of the UK’s plastic waste goes to landfill whereas countries that have introduced landfill bans send less than 10%.  

It might be time for us to follow the examples of countries like Austria, Finland and Germany to see drastic improvements in our landfill figures. 

Less than 25% of our plastic waste is recycled and only 8% is energy recovered. 63% of post-consumer, plastic packaging waste is generated by households and 37% comes from trade and industry showing that individuals at home have the power to improve our stats as well as businesses so long as councils offer good recycling services as in the case of Oxfordshire. 

Also, shockingly, eight billion disposable bags are used in England each year, which equates to 130 per person. This is another area where individuals can take some responsibility for reducing this number and with charges for bags being introduced in the near future we will all be incentivised to make this change. 

European Packaging Directive target

The European Packaging Directive had set a target to have us recycling 22.5% of all plastic packaging by 2012. The UK achieved this target at 24.2%, but when compared to the average recycling rate in Europe of 34.7% it suddenly doesn’t look like such a great achievement. 

Plastics Europe reported that the overall recovery rate of plastics packaging waste in Europe was 69.2%, up 3.3% from 2011, but the UK was below average at 68.1% with only an increase of 1.49% since 2011, seeing us trail behind in yet another area. 

By 2017 the plastics packaging waste recycling target for Europe is 42% and 57% for the UK. Clearly, change is needed if we are going to achieve this. 

On a mission

Wrights Plastics is a waste plastics specialist that believes doing nothing is not an option if we are to have a sustainable future. 

The UK needs to push for changes to policy and infrastructure, which are currently lacking as well as improving individual organisations and supply chains. 

Raw materials for plastics are petroleum and/or natural gas and while plastics only use four per cent of the world’s oil, supplies are becoming depleted meaning recycling is increasingly becoming a financially viable option compared to using increasingly expensive raw materials. 

To work, recycling needs systems for collection and sorting. There also needs to be a market for the recycled materials and they must be made available to reuse. 

Scrap material left over from the creation of new products made from raw materials is another area for business to look at, by finding ways to minimise the waste and then trying to use the rest. 

This scrap material results from the start-up and shutdown periods of the processing machinery, from out of specification products and from quality control samples. 

With these values in mind, in 2011 Wrights Plastics attended an environmental conference at Marks & Spencer and began a mission to reduce the environmental impact of their products by changing the materials they used and by investing in updating the processes used to create their products. 

Since then we have improved segregation and recycling of waste within the business, diverting an impressive 30 tonnes of waste from landfill. 

Recycled foam is now used in a number of products and is specified where possible and 100% recycled products are now supplied to their customer, Land Rover. 40 tonnes of scrap material has been sent for recycling, which was mainly acrylic, but also included HDPE, ABS, PETG, Styrene and Nylon. 

M&S light boxes

Wrights Plastics have used over 7.5 tonnes of reconstituted foam PVC in the manufacture of Marks & Spencer’s light boxes, which were originally made with MDF and an acrylic top. The new product met Marks & Spencer’s sustainability strategy, reduced the weight of the product and came in on budget. 

They are now aiming to completely replace MDF with foam PVC, eliminating 1780 vehicle movements and 180kg miles, cutting 46 tonnes of carbon emissions per annum.  

Not only have all these improvements been good for the environment, they also believe it makes good business sense with customers increasingly wanting to know that the products they buy are made responsibly; even seeking out and using suppliers specifically for this reason. 

Given their impressive improvements so far, it goes to show that these changes are possible and could also make a big difference in the UK to our European rankings if other companies followed in their footsteps. 

With the 2017 targets approaching, now is the time to take action and give the UK a more sustainable future.

For more details on Wrights Plastics, visit or to access the company's blog section with details of its specially commissioned white paper, go to

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