Plastics and climate change: unwrapping the evidence

As numerous organisations, institutions, and individuals announce plans to go ‘plastic free’ - or at least reduce their plastic use - momentum around the issue of plastic waste, much like plastic itself, has not gone away.

With the Government considering further measures, such as banning plastic straws, it is worth examining in depth the wider environmental implications of moves towards a more ‘plastic free’ society.

Through their connection to fossil fuels – in both production and transportation - plastics make a significant contribution to man-made climate change, accounting for 6% of global oil demand and rising US methane emissions from associated gas extraction. Yet the interaction between tackling the twin problems of plastic waste and plastic’s contribution to climate change is potentially more complex than first appears.

Plastic pollution and climate change

Plastics are produced through ‘cracking’ and refining fossil fuels, whereby the fossil fuel - either gas or oil – is broken down into constituent hydrocarbons and re-forged into plastic resins.

The production and transport of plastic causes carbon emissions, although estimates vary as to the exact carbon footprint of plastic, in line with variation in production methods. The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable, a coalition of global beverage companies working to improve sustainability in the sector, estimated that one 500ml plastic water bottle (about 10 grams) has an average total CO2 footprint of 82.8 grams. For context, the production of four plastic bottles produces approximately the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as travelling one mile in a medium-sized petrol car.

Turning to the emissions from the general production of plastic resin, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put forward an estimate of over 1.15 grams CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per gram of plastic resin produced. If transport and other associated emissions are included, plastic resin causes roughly 1.5-3.3 grams of greenhouse gas for every gram produced in total.

Plastic production has risen from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 381 million tonnes in 2015, with only 9% of plastic discarded since 1950 estimated to have been recycled. Production is set to increase substantially, reaching 34,000 million tonnes by 2050.

Rising plastic production will exacerbate both the problems of litter and climate change. By 2050, the plastic industry is predicted to account for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With around 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the oceans every year, this not only represents a significant hazard to the marine species and human health, but considerable wastage of resources and inefficiency.

Recycling and a circular economy

Recent studies have suggested that plastic alternatives, such as paper bags, have a significantly higher energy footprint than those created from virgin plastics. In contrast, emissions from recycled plastics are significantly reduced relative to both paper and virgin plastic production, generating significant energy, financial, and resource savings. This fact bolsters the much broader case for a more efficient, 'circular economy' approach.

A circular economy is an alternative to the traditional, linear, 'make, use, dispose' structure, with resources (defined in terms of materials, water, energy and carbon, as well as natural and social capital) kept in use and at their highest value for as long as possible, reducing waste and improving efficiency.

Its main advantages include energy savings and insulation from potential raw material supply and price shocks. The Environmental Services Association suggested that a more circular economy could increase UK GDP by £3 billion a year, with a 2011 study for the Government suggesting £23 billion of economic benefits from low or no cost improvements available to businesses in the UK.

In terms of plastic, a circular economy approach emphasises recyclability, with a particular focus on increasing recyclable packaging and infrastructure. However, the extent of possible plastic recycling is limited, with some estimates suggesting only a maximum of between 36-56% could be recycled at current technology levels. Likewise current UK recycling rates have recently stalled, with some plastic items - such as the notorious disposable coffee cup - not easily recyclable and rejected by variable local recycling guidelines.

But achieving a perfect circle is difficult, with potential leakage into the environment particularly concerning for plastic, given its adverse impacts on marine species and ultimately human health. This underscores the need to develop and deploy biodegradable plastics and alternative materials.

Alternative materials

Biodegradable plastics include a broad range of materials - some biological and others petrochemical based - which can undergo 'normal' thermal decomposition into different compounds.

However, such materials are significantly more expensive to produce than standard plastics. Likewise in some cases they require specific conditions in which to safely decompose, with 'biodegradable’ not necessarily the same as ‘compostable’. As a result, they do not necessarily eliminate litter-based pollution problems, meaning that demand reduction policies, as well as measures to encourage less harmful alternative materials, should be considered.

Alternative materials such as cotton or stainless steel both have significant energy footprints. Their main advantages are their long-term reusability and the low risk they present when accidentally introduced into the ecosystem. 

The longer life-span of reusable items therefore goes some way to mitigate the short-term drawbacks of higher energy consumption. Additional carbon emissions can in turn be mitigated through the continued decarbonisation of the electricity supply and the development of carbon capture and storage technology.

Supply and demand

As shown by BP's announcement that the plastic reduction drive has the potential to reduce oil demand, it is clearly possible to tackle both problems simultaneously.

Environmental policymakers should be wary of unintended consequences. As policy and media attention continues to focus on how to address public concern over plastic pollution, its concurrent impact on climate change should also be a primary consideration. A joined-up - not single-issue silo – approach, therefore, is essential.

Philip Box is a researcher at Bright Blue

Tackling the waste plastic epidemic

One cannot have missed the increasing concern surrounding waste plastic in the last few months and weeks. The good news is that the first step towards solving a problem is to recognise it as an issue in the first place, and it seems that this ongoing environmental crisis is now starting to get the publicity it needs.

The scale of the problem

The bad news is that the more articles appear on the subject, the more it becomes clear that the problem is even bigger than first realised. As recently reported by Sky News, a lot of the UK’s plastic waste is recorded as recycled when it is exported, regardless of what actually happens to it when it reaches its destination. This issue is only likely to worsen as China, previously the recipient of two thirds of the UK’s plastic waste, was due to ban imports of waste plastic as of January 2018.

With the national average recycling rate having stalled at 43% and even the fate of plastic which is exported for recycling uncertain, it is clear that we have to produce fewer single-use plastic items. According to the BBC, 480 billion plastic drinks bottles were sold globally in 2016 and given that each bottle will take around 450 years to biodegrade, production of these items is far outstripping our ability to dispose of them.

Changing behaviours

As with single-use plastic bags, changing public behaviours will be key to solving the problem. Though businesses and public buildings in the UK are already legally obliged to offer free drinking water, popping in and asking for a refill for your reusable water bottle can feel a bit cheeky if you are not buying anything else.

Fortunately, there is a growing initiative, spearheaded by a group called City to Sea in Bristol which aims to set up free refill stations nationwide. The Refill campaign already has 1,600 drinking water stations across the country which you can locate using the Refill app. Now Water UK have joined the campaign with a view to widening the network to include tens of thousands of high street shops and cafes by 2021. Crucially, the scheme will make it clear that people are welcome to refill their bottles via window stickers and a location marker on the Refill app.

The plastic bag tax demonstrated that uptake of single-use plastic items can be successfully discouraged. After a five pence tax on thin-gauge plastic shopping bags was introduced in October 2015, their use dropped by over 85% in six months. A similar tax on all single-use plastics (including packaging and take-away cartons) is being considered by the Treasury, whilst a plastic bottle deposit scheme has also been suggested. This could see around 20 pence added to the cost of drinks sold in disposable plastic bottles, which would then be refunded when the bottle was returned to the point of sale for recycling.

Germany introduced just such a scheme in 2002 and it has since helped them achieve the highest rates of polyethylene terephthalate plastic bottle returns and recycling in the world, with rates of 97-98% being reported. In addition to this, 80% of Germany’s recycling is done domestically, avoiding the kind of uncertainty which currently surrounds the fate of Britain’s exported waste plastic.

In combination with a wider, well-advertised network of refill points, a tax or deposit scheme could be the mechanism for effecting the genuine change in consumer habits necessary to stem production of single-use plastic bottles.

Smell the coffee

There are other areas, however, where eliminating single-use plastic is not proving as straight forward. A recent proposal to apply a similar levy – dubbed the latté levy – on single-use coffee cups has not been well received by the industry.

Disposable coffee cups are clearly an issue as, despite being mostly paper, they have a polyethylene lining to make them waterproof. Currently, there are just three recycling plants in the UK that can separate the paper from the plastic lining, clearly not enough when 2.5 billion disposable cups are used every year in the UK. In fact, only 1% of disposable coffee cups are ever recycled.

As with bottled water, swapping single-use containers for reusable mugs would seem to present a way forward and moves are already being made to reward customers for using them. This month, Pret A Manger announced it was doubling the discount it offers on hot drinks for customers who bring their own mug, from 25p to 50p. Even whilst levies on disposable coffee cups remain at the proposal stage, evidence suggests that consumers are already changing their habits with sales of barista-standard reusable cups reaching a quarter of a million in the UK in the last three months of 2017 alone.

It is important that all aspects of the industry are keeping up to date with the potentially rapid shift in consumer behaviour. United Baristas have identified planning law as a particular area where legislation is seemingly at odds with the move towards more environmentally friendly practices.

It turns out that a lot of coffee shops in the busiest ‘A1’ sites are subject to planning laws requiring at least 50% of their sales to be of products consumed off site. Measures to reduce the number of single-use cups, such as the 25 pence levy could impact take-out sales, and lead to a higher percentage of customers sitting in. Ultimately, this could put some coffee shops in breach of planning regulations, putting the business at risk. The irony here is that the higher the percentage of take-away coffees a shop currently sells, the less likely they are to find themselves in breach of the law – so the worst contributors to the disposable cup problem get off most lightly.

Cleaning up

Clearly, all aspects of consumer behaviour have to be examined and factored in to any changes in the law. But what can we do as individuals to speed up the rate of change and make a difference to the plastic waste epidemic?

Well, since it seems that since much of the plastic exported for recycling is not actually recycled, and the facilities do not exist on the scale required to deal with the number of disposable coffee cups we use, simply putting your waste in the right bin may not be the answer – we have to use fewer of these items. Get a reusable water bottle, get a reusable coffee cup with a lid, and buy fewer products with unnecessary packaging. We can talk all day about changing consumer behaviour but at the end of the day, those consumers are us, and our individual actions make a difference.

For the most committed amongst us, there are also ongoing initiatives that you can join to help clean up the plastic that already contaminates our beaches. The Marine Conservation Society, for example, runs regular Beachwatch beach cleaning events up and down the country, so find your nearest event, don your wellies, and get involved.

Matthew Pavli is writing for Aqua Cure. The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Grounds for taxation?

The British have long had a love affair with coffee. In our homes, at work, and on our highstreets, we collectively drink approximately 55 million cups of it a day. Yet, the nation’s caffeine compulsion is manifesting itself as a mounting environmental problem, largely through the way in which most coffee cups are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.

In light of this fact, the Environmental Audit Committee has recently recommended that the Government should introduce a minimum charge of 25 pence on disposable cups, to be paid for by the consumer on top of the price of their beverage. The ‘latte levy’ has been touted as a good way of tackling the problem of disposable coffee cup waste – much in the same way as England has seen a dramatic fall in the use of plastic carrier bags since the introduction of a five pence charge in most shops in 2015. The question is, will it work?

Any rational economist will say that, for most goods at least, as the price of something goes up, the demand for it goes down. A consequence of this is that people will probably look for substitutes – as was observed with the rise in ‘Bags for Life’ after the first plastic bag charges were introduced in the UK. The logic goes, therefore, that by explicitly taxing people for the cup into which their coffee is eventually poured, they will invest in reusable cups to avoid the new charge.

All froth?

There could be two reasons which prevent the latte levy from being as successful as the plastic bag charge in terms of cutting down on waste. First, at the essence of an on the go coffee is convenience. One buys a coffee, drinks it, and disposes of the cup accordingly. Indeed, the majority of disposable coffee cups are consumed whilst people are ‘on the move’. The alternative of carrying around a reusable cup, both before and after one wants a coffee, seems somewhat conflicting with that notion of convenience. 

Admittedly, sales of reusable coffee cups have increased since the Government first hinted at the introduction of a charge on disposable cups – and not least because the Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, has given one to each of his colleagues in cabinet. Whether or not they get used, however, is another question.  

Interestingly, one scheme in Germany recognises the fact that not everyone remembers, or perhaps wants, to carry reusable cup around at all times. Instead, a network of over 100 businesses have agreed to a system whereby scheme members receive their beverage in a reusable cup, which can then be returned to a participating shop once empty. The shops then wash the cups, ready for their next use. The cost of the scheme is a negligible €1 per member, and is regarded as being very successful.

Second, where the plastic bag charge works, and the proposed latte levy may not, is that using a cup – disposable or otherwise – is an intrinsic part of grabbing a quick coffee. In other words, the need for the cup is unavoidable. The same is not necessarily true of plastic bags when out shopping; one can buy multiple items and get away without needing a bag. Indeed, ‘beating the system’ and dodging the small levy is something much more readily available to the would-be plastic bag buyer than the coffee cup consumer.

Extra measures

Therefore, one could conclude that whilst the latte levy may bring down some of the current levels of waste seen around disposable coffee cups, more thought might be needed to get a handle on the problem. On this point, two areas of concern need to be looked at.

First, there is the issue of recycling. Due to manufacturing methods, the vast majority of coffee cups are not recycled. In the whole of Britain, only three specialist recycling centres exist which can process coffee cups – which explains why less than 1% of the 2.5 billion coffee cups used per year in the UK get recycled. However, there are companies which have developed cups which are more easy to recycle, and major coffee chains are apparently in talks with them to adopt the more environmentally friendly packaging. It is overwhelmingly likely that making disposable cups more easily recyclable will be crucial in cracking down on the remaining instances of non-reusable coffee cup use. 

Second, recyclable or not, disposable coffee cups contribute greatly to total littering in the UK. This is a point which the Environmental Audit Committee raised itself in its report. The Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey MP, made clear that the UK needs to improve its on-street ‘binfrastructure’, simply to give people the opportunity to dispose of their coffee cups more appropriately. At the moment, less than half of all councils provide on-the-go recycling bins, which doubtlessly explains why half a million coffee cups end up as litter on the ground every day in the UK.


The Government has an ambition to crack down on waste, and as part of that has disposable coffee cups firmly within its crosshairs. If it does adopt the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee to introduce a latte levy – a measure which Gove has described, incidentally, as “exciting” – it is imaginable that coffee cup waste will fall: due to reduced effective demand, and consumers switching to reusable cups.

Yet, to think that success seen with the plastic bag charge will similarly be realised as the result of a latte levy may be premature. More work on developing recyclable cups, and providing more bins for people to dispose of their cups in, may also be required if the Government is to confront Britain’s coffee cup conundrum.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

Gove not bottling it over plastic pollution

The Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, may have opened his speech at the recent Conservative Party Conference with a characteristically light-hearted joke about recycling, but the main thrust of the speech was an examination of some of the most serious environmental problems with which Britain is currently faced. One of the key messages which stood out was a clear commitment to reducing the nation’s plastic pollution, with Gove announcing a call for evidence for a new bottle deposit scheme in England.

Other government policies to tackle plastic

The Government has already made good headway on tackling the vast quantities of plastic which end up strewn across the country, and circulating in our surrounding seas. In October 2015, English supermarket shoppers saw the introduction of the plastic bag charge, which has resulted in a drop in their use of over 9 billion units – equivalent to an 83% fall.

Earlier this year Gove followed up an announcement made by his predecessor, the Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP, by publishing draft legislation which seeks to ban synthetic microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products. And in April, an England-wide ‘Litter strategy’ was created, part of which focuses on how to better ensure plastics are appropriately disposed of – through measures such as better recycling education in schools, and appraising how changes to bin collections may alter recycling rates.

The bottle deposit scheme

The emphasis on plastic bottles is not without good reason. Indeed, figures suggest that one third of all plastic deposited into our seas is beverage litter. For comparison, plastic bags and microbeads each constitute only one percent of total plastic marine debris. What’s more is that solving plastic bottle pollution also appears far more achievable relative to other pressing environmental issues.

A bottle deposit scheme works by incentivising people to recycle used bottles, rather than simply throwing them away once they are empty. A small levy – perhaps 10 to 30 pence – is charged on each bottle purchased, which is then refunded upon return of that bottle. The bottles are then crushed and sent off to be turned into brand new plastic products.

While England actually has rather robust recycling infrastructure within the household domain, the gap in facilities tends to occur outside of the home. Coupled with an ‘on the go’ culture – particularly with regards to food and drink – some individuals find it challenging to appropriately dispose of litter. Indeed, learning how to address this fact forms one line of enquiry of the consultation which the Government recently opened out to the public.

Internationally, only a handful of countries have bottle deposit schemes, but those which do tend to enjoy elevated levels of recycling. In Germany, for example, their polyethylene terephthalate bottle deposit scheme boasts a 98.5% recycling rate – which dwarfs the UK’s current performance, where only 57% of plastic bottles are eventually recycled. Over the border in Scotland, the First Minister, the Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP, recently confirmed to the Scottish Parliament her intention to do more to support recycling and the circular economy, in part through the introduction of a bottle deposit scheme.

The environmental impact

The consequences of plastic pollution can be devastating for the natural environment. For wildlife, there is the clear danger that they will ingest plastic believing it to be food, as well as becoming entangled within it. Globally, over a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals – such as dolphins, whales and seals – die from plastic pollution each year. Indeed, speaking at the recent Our Oceans Conference, Prince Charles spoke of his “mounting despair” with respect to plastic pollution and the impact which it is having on marine environments.

But for humans, too, plastic in our seas can also pose health risks. Of particular danger for human populations are microplastics, which can find their way into our oceans through accidental spills of ‘nurdles’ (the raw plastic pellets which are shipped around the world for manufacture), microbeads, and as the result of the breakdown of macroplastics – e.g. bags and bottles. Where plastic is most hazardous to humans is when it enters into the food chain. One study, for instance, found that the average European who eats seafood will ingest over 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year.

Recycling plastic bottles not only helps the environment through reducing pollution, but also in the way that doing so saves on energy and resources in production, as well as conserving landfill space. It takes 75% less energy to make a bottle from recycled plastic rather than ‘virgin’ material, for instance, and diverting a tonne of plastic away from landfill can save 7.4 cubic yards of space. Reuse of plastic helps create a more resource-efficient economy too, with significant potential cost savings for business.

Other positive consequences of bottle deposit schemes which have been touted include the potential for diminished costs for councils – as there will be less litter and household recycling to collect – and an improved, tidier, more beautiful public realm. In purely fiscal terms, one report calculates that savings to local authorities in England alone could be anywhere between £35 million to £56 million per annum.


At a time when the focus of the political world is fixed largely on the issues of Brexit, under Gove’s leadership Defra has been quietly and consistently churning out practical policies which in time will lead to demonstrable improvements in our nation’s natural environment. The precise configuration of a bottle deposit scheme will undoubtedly be vital to whether it succeeds at tackling plastic pollution. However, the evidence from other countries suggests it could certainly be a step in the right direction to a less polluted world.

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue

Is there too much localism for recycling?

Recycling is well-known in the public consciousness as an environmentally-minded activity. Yet, despite high levels of awareness, there is some evidence of the recycling industry in England stagnating in recent years.

Figures released this week revealed that the amount of rubbish rejected for recycling by councils has actually increased in the past four years. From 184,000 tonnes in 2011-12, this figure has increased to 338,000 tonnes in 2014-15, an increase of around 84%. If households incorrectly sort their waste, it is possible for a batch of recycling to be contaminated. Resorting waste can be very expensive, and so often councils just send any contaminated waste to landfill.

This blog will briefly examine the recent trends in recycling in England, the benefits of recycling, and the Government’s current policies in this area.

Trends in recycling 

Recycling rates have increased in England in recent years, although progress has been slower than elsewhere in the UK. In 2010, 41% of household waste was recycled. This increased to 45% in 2014. Over the same time period in Wales, recycling increased from 44% to 55%.

The FT reported this month that prices for recycled goods had fallen significantly and were causing recycling businesses to leave the market. For instance, a tonne of recycled plastic has fallen from £400 two years ago to just £300 now. As a result of lower oil prices, new plastic is now much cheaper. Recycled goods are in competition with virgin goods. With many commentators arguing that low oil prices are the new normal, this does not bode well for the medium-term economic prospects of the recycling industry.

Why recycle?

Recycling can have important benefits for both the environment and the economy. First, by preventing waste from being sent to landfill, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from waste currently constitute around 4% of the UK’s warming emissions. In landfill, methane is released by the decomposition of biodegradable waste in the absence of oxygen. Landfill emissions have fallen by 79% since 1990. This has been in part a result of biodegradable waste being diverted from landfill by recycling.

Second, recycling also provides an economic opportunity for businesses through encouraging greater resource efficiency. Recycling is a key component of a ‘circular economy’. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that 210,300 jobs could be created by the circular economy in the UK by 2030. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the circular economy could benefit EU businesses by between $340 and $630 billion per year by reducing the amount of raw materials they require.

Current policies

The UK is subject to the EU’s binding target to recycle 50% of household waste by 2020. Recycling is a devolved issue, so there are separate policies in each part of the UK to ensure the target is met. Some believe that England’s stagnating progress makes it unlikely the target will be met.

One of the main policy drivers for incentivising recycling is the landfill tax. Introduced in 1996 by the then Conservative Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon John Gummer MP, this was Britain’s first environmental tax. It is now levied at £84.40 per tonne of rubbish that is disposed in landfill. This creates an important economic incentive for businesses to recycle.

Although central government sets local authorities recycling targets, the local arrangements for collecting recycling are left to individual councils. The Household Waste Recycling Act 2003 mandated that councils collect at least two kinds of recyclable waste from 2010, but gave them freedom to structure the scheme how they wanted.

But this localist approach has not been without problems. For instance, it has led to a proliferation of different recycling systems, with each part of the country having its own types of bins and collection methods. This in turn can confuse households, and lead to greater contamination of recycled waste. At a Bright Blue fringe event at last year's Conservative Party Conference, the then Recycling Minister, Rory Stewart MP, expressed concern about this, and has urged local authorities to work together to harmonise recycling processes across the country.

The current set of recycling policies has enjoyed some success. But it’s clear that now more radical action is required if recycling rates are to increase sufficiently such that the legally binding household waste target and greenhouse gas emissions reduction target are to be met.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue