How much waste does the UK produce?
The most recent data available from DEFRA shows the UK generated 222.9 million tonnes of waste in 2016, up 4% from 2014.
Construction and demolition generates the most waste – about 136 million tonnes a year. Mineral waste accounts for 36% of the total and includes anything that’s left over from mining or quarrying, and can’t be used again.
Waste generated in the UK Million tonnes, 2016Source: Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2020
What about households?
The latest figures available show that UK households produced just under 27 million tonnes of waste in 2017. That’s around 409 kg per person – roughly half the weight of a small car. This is mostly made up of food scraps, newspapers, cardboard, glass bottles and plastics.
Food is a significant contributor to household waste. Wrap estimates that household food waste makes up 70% of the UK total, and a study by the University of Sussex found that the average family in the UK throws away 20% of all the food they buy, costing up to £800 a year.
How much gets recycled?
The latest data shows 45% of UK households’ waste was recycled in 2018, a small decrease on the previous year. The target is to recycle at least 50% of waste from households by 2020.
Paper and cardboard were the most recycled materials at 79%, followed by metal at 71.3% and glass at 67.6%. For these materials, much of the recycling is carried out in the UK.
Perhaps the most controversial way of managing our waste is incineration – a topic of particular interest in our community given that a 20MW incinerator has received planning permission in Shepshed. In 2016 (the latest figures available), 13.3 million tonnes of waste was incinerated, an increase of over 250% in two years. Sustainability charity Wrap has previously suggested that the increase in UK incineration rates is down to more plastic being burnt, rather than being sent abroad after China’s ban.
How much of the UK’s rubbish is sent abroad?
Around 65% of plastic waste in the UK is sent overseas to be recycled, largely due to market failure in the UK – basically it is not profitable to recycle waste in this country.
The BBC found that the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of plastic packaging to other countries in the year to October 2018. Until then, China imported most of the world’s plastic waste, but due to concerns about contamination and pollution, it announced it would no longer buy contaminated recycled plastic scrap. Since then, the amount of the UK’s plastic taken by China has plummeted by 94%! Malaysia, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia are among some of the countries that picked up the slack. However, in recent months, these countries have been sending back thousands of tonnes of illegally exported non-recyclable plastic waste to the UK.
A huge amount of metal and paper is also sent overseas to be recycled. In 2018, 9.5 million tonnes of metal and 4.5 million tonnes of paper were exported, according to HM Revenue & Customs.
Our local Woodhouse Eaves Plastic Free group is very active in helping the community reduce and manage their household waste. They also provide advice on where to buy produce locally without plastic packaging, and organise regular community activities, such as the recent litter-pick event and regular Terra-cycle collections. See https://www.wheplasticfree.co.uk/ for further information.