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Plastics: problems and solutions

Almost everything we buy is made from or packaged in plastic.

In this article we delve into the problems with plastic, discuss which companies are the biggest plastic polluters and look at what you can do to tackle plastic waste. 

Each day, the equivalent of 2,000 rubbish trucks of plastic are dumped into the world's oceans, rivers, and lakes, according to the UN. Plastic is in every corner of the planet, even the deepest part of the sea

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now estimated to be three times the size of France, with 46% of it composed of discarded nets and other kinds of fishing gear.

Why is plastic a problem?

Plastic is produced from fossil fuels, meaning it has a high carbon footprint. It doesn’t disintegrate over time, instead just breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics.

Microplastics have entered all our ecosystems, posing a threat to the animals that live there. They release toxins and are consumed by fish and other sea creatures, which can harm their organs and ability to reproduce.

Plastic could also be affecting human health. In 2019, environmental group WWF found that the average person could be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card of plastic every week.

Plastics can contain multiple toxic chemicals, such as PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances). PFAS have been linked to a plethora of health impacts from lower fertility to high risk of concern, and are also known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they break down so slowly. In January 2024, a study which tested the blood of politicians across Europe found that they all contained seven PFAS, with five of the politicians carrying levels higher than the current threshold for health concerns. 

Which products contain plastic?

Plastic is one of the most widely used materials in our world. From make-up to clothing, many products can contain plastics.

Here we list just a few areas of life where plastic is commonly used:

  • Packaging: in the UK, plastic packaging accounts for nearly 70% of our plastic waste, according to the charity Wrap. Plastic covers everything from our fruit and vegetables to our new TV. 
  • Clothing: as much as 64% of new fabrics are made of plastics. Look for plastic materials like acrylic and polyester on the label, or sometimes the word synthetic e.g. ‘synthetic fur’
  • Cosmetics: lots of health and beauty products contain microplastics and liquid polymers (as well as using plastic packaging). Plastic microbeads have been banned in the UK for ‘rinse-off’ products like shampoo and soap, but not for products which you leave on your hair or skin like make-up or moisturiser. Sun protection, nail polishes and all kinds of hair styling products use a plethora of liquid plastics. 
  • Technology and household appliances rely on plastic.

Read our articles on plastic in clothes and microbeads in toiletries and cosmetics for more info.

Is plastic recycled?

Some plastic can be recycled, but unfortunately much of it still ends up in landfill. In the UK, we recycle less than half of our plastic waste. Recycling uses considerably less energy and fossil fuels than making new plastic products.

Some plastic waste is much easier to recycle and sort than others. A survey by the plastic charity Recoup suggests that while as much as 88% of plastic bottles are recycled, just 7% of plastic films are.

Even if plastics are recycled, they generally cannot be reused infinitely. Each time plastic is recycled, it degrades – meaning it can only be reused a few times before going into waste. While recycling is better than chucking plastic away, it is by no means a silver bullet for our huge problem with plastic pollution.

What kinds of plastic can I recycle?

Some kinds of plastics are easier to recycle than others here in the UK. Items like plastic bottles, cleaning bottles, tubs, trays, and cartons are all recycled by most councils. Other items – like fruits and veg bags – can be recycled at some local supermarkets.

Plastic packaging usually comes with two labels on it to help you understand whether it can be recycled. Below we explain what each kind of label means, so you can work out what to recycle.

Understanding recycling labels

The Recycle Now website has produced an excellent guide to understanding what recycling labels mean.  

Eight different recycling logos

Theses labels are very similar and confusing. They range from meaning that you can most likely put it in your recycling (as 75% of councils in the UK accept it), to only recycle in certain places, to don't recycle at all. 

For example, the label with the black background, white circular arrow and a line through the words 'Don't recycle' is used on packaging that can be recycled by fewer than half of councils in the UK. Confusingly, this means that some councils may be able to recycle it, so it can be worth double checking using the search on the Recycle Now website.

Some labels also give instructions on how to best recycle the packaging. They tell you whether the packaging needs to be rinsed, the lid should be left on, or the packaging needs to be separated before recycling.

Some packaging can only be recycled at drop off points offered in some supermarkets. You’ll often see this label on bags for bread, fruit and vegetables, crisp packets and chocolate wrappers.

If there is a symbol of three arrows going round in a circle and a number between 1 and 7, this refers to which kind of plastic it is. Number one, for example, is PET, which is used for drinks bottles and some food packaging and is widely recycled.

Confusingly, the numbers aren’t a scale: they don’t go from most to least recyclable but are randomly allocated to a plastic type (see table below). 

Plastic type and recyclability
Widely recycled Can be recycled at specialist points (e.g. supermarkets) Not easily recyclable
Drinks bottles, some food packaging, cleaning bottles, milk cartons, tubs, trays Plastic bags and wrapping, crisp packets, rice packets etc Car parts, window fittings, takeaway boxes, disposable cutlery etc
Label 1, 2, 5 Label 4, 7  Label 3, 6

Plastic recycling dumped in Global South

Landfill dump Indonesia with person and digger
Landfill site, Indonesia

The UK sends plastic abroad

The majority of the UK’s plastic waste is exported to be recycled or incinerated abroad. Major pollution and human rights issues associated with our rubbish are therefore also exported.

Turkey and Germany are the biggest destination for the UK’s plastic waste, but the amount being exported to lower income countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia is also increasing.

In 2021, the environmental group Greenpeace found that exported plastic waste was being illegally dumped and burned in Turkey. In 2020, it found that the burning of exported plastic in Malaysia was polluting soil and water with chemicals known to damage the brain, nervous system and other organs.

Civil society groups have called on the UK to ban all plastic waste exports, and in November 2023, the EU announced that it would ban exports to countries that are not in the OECD (which is largely wealthier nations). The Conservative party included a similar pledge in their manifesto, but the expected consultation on the issue did not materialise in 2023.

Which companies are the biggest plastic polluters?

Environmental campaign group Surfers Against Sewage announced the UK’s dozen biggest polluters in 2023 – accounting for more than 70% of branded waste found across the UK. The worst offenders were Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and PepsiCo.

The annual brand audit, which involves a litter pick of more than 30,000 items, from UK beaches to city streets, looks at both plastic and non-plastic items.

Some key takeaways from the Dirty Dozen report:

  • Coca-Cola tops the list of plastic polluters for the fourth year running, responsible for almost one fifth (17%) of branded pollution collected. 
  • McDonald’s has overtaken PepsiCo to secure second place, responsible for one in 10 (11%) salvaged polluting items.
  • Together, these three biggest polluting brands were responsible for 37% of all branded pollution collected during the audit.
  • Fishing gear (including line, nets, and ropes) made up a staggering 16% of all branded and unbranded waste found on beaches, with fishing pollution items more than doubling since last year. 
  • 131 vape and e-cigarette products were logged by citizen scientists.

UK supermarkets have also been identified as major plastic polluters. In 2021, a survey conducted by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace UK showed that the ten leading supermarkets collectively put almost 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging on the market in 2019. That’s the equivalent weight of almost 90 Eiffel Towers.

What is the UK doing about plastic pollution?

Countries in the UK have been making some small steps towards addressing plastic waste and plastic pollution:

Experts and campaigners say, however, that the measures don’t go far enough.

Fruit and vegetables individually wrapped in plastic

What can I do about plastic pollution?

Although it could be argued that it shouldn't be up to consumers to go to complicated lengths to avoid things with plastic or finding out how to recycle it, with the onus on companies and governments instead, many ethical consumers do want to do their bit to avoid creating plastic waste. 

Here are ten tips to help reduce your plastic use.

10 plastic-free tips

1) Avoid plastic packaging on fruit and veg. Supermarkets wrap most fruit and veg in plastic, so you may want to visit your local greengrocer, market or order a veg box (all of which generally use less plastic). We have information on sustainable food networks and alternatives to supermarkets in our shopping guide to supermarkets.

2) Carry a reusable cup, bottle and shopping bag. The Refill app tells you where you can get your bottle refilled while out and about. Having a fork and spoon in bags you take travelling can also be really useful.

3) Find and support your local refill / zero waste shop, if you have one, in order to buy things like dried foods, cleaning products and shampoo and handwash by filling up your containers. (There are some UK directories of zero waste or refill shops online, with selected stores highlighted by Pebble, more listed by Eco Thrifty Living, but do check locally as things can change frequently.)

4) Use reusable tupperware boxes instead of single-use clingfilm. You could also make or buy beeswax or vegan wax wraps.

5) Lots of plastic packaging can be reused: snip the top off a bag that contained something dry like oats or nuts, or reuse bags that contained bread or wraps, to carry your sandwiches or for refilling at your local zero waste store.

6) You can also use bread bags or similar to do quick litter picks when out and about and place the rubbish in a bin. Turn the bag inside out or wear gloves. Although the bag won’t be recycled, the environment will have less litter!

7) Avoid coffee capsules which cannot be recycled.

8) Opt for bars of soap rather than bottles. Wholefood shops and more ethical cosmetics brands like Lush sell bars of shampoo and conditioner also.

9) Repair the things you already own. We have guides to repairing your tech, repairing and upcycling clothing, and repairing other items on our website.

10) Join and support a plastic campaign (see below).

Check out our guides to plastics in clothing and cosmetics for more tips on cutting down your plastic use, how to find out if there's plastic in your tea, and guides to reducing plastic in kitchens and bathrooms

Join and support plastic campaigns

You can also support UK and global campaigns for action against plastic. We've included some current ones below:

1) Ask for a new UK law to hold companies to account

Environmental organisation Friends of the Earth is campaigning for a Business, Human Rights and Environment Act “that really holds companies to account.” You can sign the petition on the Friends of the Earth website.

2) Tell supermarkets to ditch throwaway plastic packaging

Greenpeace’s petition to UK supermarkets has over 2.5 million signatures as of January 2024. Add your name now to press for supermarkets to do more.

3) Write to the UK’s worst polluters

Surfers Against Sewage have a letter template on their website, so that you can write to the ‘Dirty Dozen’ companies responsible for 70% of all packaging pollution in the UK.

4) Join the pollution audit to call out the worst offenders

Each year, thousands of volunteers join Surfers Against Sewage in organising a litter pick of their area and counting the branded packaging. Collectively, they identify and call out the worst polluters across the UK. Find out how to get involved in the Million Mile Clean on their site.

5) Give up plastic for a day or a month

#PlasticFreeFriday sees people in the UK pledging to go plastic free every Friday, and is coordinated by Friends of the Earth. 

Plastic Free July calls on people across the world to go plastic free for a month in July. You can make a pledge on their sites.

6) Demand a Global Plastics Treaty now

Governments have started UN negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty. Greenpeace is asking people to “Join the call and demand an ambitious and strong global plastics treaty that will limit plastic production and use.” Sign the petition for a Global Plastics Treaty on the Greenpeace website.

7) Take part in the Big Plastic Count each March 

Greenpeace organises a Big Plastic Count each year when thousands of schools, households, community groups and businesses come together to count their plastic waste. 

We did have another action, joining charities calling for a ban on disposable vapes, but the good news is that this will now take place in England, Scotland and Wales in 2024 or 2025.

Share your top tips on plastic

Have you got any tips to share about how to live a plastic free life or know of any great campaigns? 

Let us know and we’ll publish them on this page. Email enquiries{at}, use our contact form (select 'general enquiries), or post on our Facebook, Instagram or X/Twitter channels.