The Big Plastic Count 2022

By Sally Campbell

We are all using too much plastic in buying food, and plastic wrapping with just about everything else. The UK produces more plastic packaging per person than almost any other country in the world – only the US is worse. And if things carry on as they are, the amount of single trip plastic waste produced around the world is set to double by 2040.

Supermarkets, brands and the government continue to push recycling as the solution to the plastic waste crisis, even though we are producing too much in the first place and our recycling systems cannot cope. It is yet another smoke and mirrors game, and the favourite of companies nowadays…greenwashing… that maintains the status quo – continuing production. Recycling alone is not going to solve our plastic problem. But at the moment, there is nowhere near enough evidence to show how much plastic leaves UK households. And most of us have no idea where it really ends up when we throw it in the bin or the recycling. That is why Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic came together to create The Big Plastic Count.

Everyday Plastic is a small non-profit social enterprise founded by Daniel Webb who decided to collect every piece of plastic waste he generated for an entire year. With the help of a scientific researcher, he developed a unique methodology to analyse his year-long collection of plastic waste to calculate his personal plastic footprint and gain an in-depth insight into what he threw away and where it ended up. Now, together, Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic scaled this up and offered us, the public, the same opportunity to get to grips with our own plastic footprint and gather the proof we need to push the government to get it right and set a target to reduce single-use plastic by 50% by 2025 and put a ban on sending our waste to other countries.

‘The Big Plastic Count’ campaign aimed to encourage households, schools, businesses to record how much plastic they throw away. There were 226 households and 4 schools signed up in the constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran. It is not too late to count yours, see below. So, for 7 days from 16-22 May we counted every piece of plastic from all sources that we used and threw away and sent our totals to Greenpeace. Most of ours were Co-op food containers, Co-op nets, labels, milk containers etc.

 

I think this pile shows the Co-op needs to rethink a lot of its packaging. The picture shows our week just from the Co-op, the rest was also counted in but not shown here as the origin was from elsewhere. We sent our total list to Greenpeace and the analysis came back as follows:

What we used in one week:
• 102 bits of plastic
• over a year that is equivalent to 5,304 pieces of plastic.

What was our plastic packaging used for?

  77% food and drink

  5% cleaning and toiletries

 18% everything else

Most plastic packaging is single use-designed to be used once and thrown away. Plastic packaging from food and drink will be highest. If supermarkets, like the Co-op reduced the amount of fruit and vegetable wrapping, it would significantly cut plastic waste.

What was the breakdown between hard and soft plastic?

  48% of our plastic was hard plastic. Hard plastic is a lot easier to recycle than soft plastic. However, there are many hard plastic items that cannot be recycled such as black plastic, polystyrene chips and toothpaste tubes.

 52% of our plastic was soft plastic. Less than 1 in 10 local councils in the UK collect soft plastic, like plastic bags and wrappers. North Ayrshire Council does not. But some supermarkets in North Ayrshire do. Co-op Stores (soft plastic packaging in all mainland stores, plastic bags in mainland stores over 3000sq ft). So not in Arran Co-ops yet.

What happens to our plastic packaging waste?


12% recycled in the UK. Sorted and reprocessed in the UK and turned into new materials. That leaves 88% what happens to it?


17% exported. UK sends tonnes to other countries every day, often to the Global South, where much ends up being dumped or burned.


25% landfilled. When buried in landfill, plastic releases harmful gases into the atmosphere, whilst wind and rain carry microplastics into surrounding areas.


46% incinerated. Burning or incinerating plastic release carbon, toxins and pollutants, presenting numerous health risks for local communities and contributing to climate change

If we are really going to tackle the plastic crisis, we need to reduce the amount of plastic that is being produced in the first place. The government is deciding what long-term environmental targets to set – it is crucial they set an ambitious target to almost entirely eradicate single-use plastic in the next 15 years. This long-term target must be accompanied by an ambitious short-term target to reduce single-use plastic by 50% by 2025, to be achieved by transitioning to reusable packaging which caters to everyone’s needs.

Returning to those 226 households and 4 schools signed up in the constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran, the result of their diligent work will be interesting to see in July.

Sally Campbell
May 2022

With thanks to Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic
Greenpeace plastic sorter: Let’s Count!