The plastic waste challenge

Keith Davidson at Mills & Reeve and Colin Morgan at ADAS (part of RSK) look at the emerging EU and UK strategies on curbing plastic waste, the proposed ban on single-use plastics  and the implications for the food industry.

The environmental consequences of a throw-away culture

Single-use plastic bags are only used for a few minutes, yet it takes hundreds of years from them to degrade.

Plastic packaging helps ensure food safety and reduces food waste, however the qualities  of being tough and long-lasting are also a disaster for the environment.

  • Plastics production and incineration of plastic waste gives rise globally to approximately 400 million tonnes of CO2 a year
  • 12 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans every year killing sea turtles, seals, whales , birds and fish
  • Microplastic enters the food chain and plastics have recently been detected in humans, following wider findings in foodstuffs, most notably marine organisms.

Chancellor Philip Hammond wants to make the UK a leader in “tackling the scourge of plastic”, however how do UK standards stack up against EU requirements?

Tackling the plastic problem

The table below shows that the UK is currently lagging behind in a number of areas

European Union


United Kingdom

Recyclable plastic


EU Plastics Strategy – January 2018


All plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2030


UK 25 Year Environment Plan – January 2018; Position paper released on 19th December 2018 on range of measures and approaches to be in the Environment Bill


Less stringent. Zero avoidance plastics by 2042


Plastic recycling targets


EU Circular Economy Package – July 2018


55% of plastic packaging should be recycled by 2030


No consultation or legislation yet


Defra has confirmed that post-Brexit the UK will be adopting the same standards

Single-use bags


EU Plastic Carrier Bag Directive – April 2015

Member States can choose to either ban shops from giving away free bags or come up with measures to ensure that buy the end of 2019, their citizens use no more than 90 such bags a year and 40 a year by 2026


The Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 – October 2015


Supermarkets must charge 5p on all single-use plastic carrier bags. Shops with less than 250 employees are exempt from the UK charging scheme, although they can chose to participate voluntarily. Proposal to increase to 10p and extend to small retailers


Single-use plastic products


Directive to Ban Single-Use Plastic Products – approved by the European Parliament on 24 October 2018


Ban by 2021 on single-use plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers.

Significant controls on food containers, cups for beverages and beverage containers. 90% of plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025


The Government issued a consultation/ call for evidence on single-use plastic waste and in August 2018 published the responses – Tackling the plastics problem.


The new Resources & Waste Strategy consultation was launched by the UK Government on 18th December 2018 and has wide ranging measures to tackle waste and packaging challenges.

Tax on plastic recycling


The EU in November 2018 said that “It is essential that more recycled plastics find their way in to new products” (Commission VP Frans Timmermans). 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics need to be used In new products solid in the EU block by 2025. In October 2018 the EU lawmakers voted to ban 10 single-use plastics which have readily alternatives by 2021.


In May 2018 the EU announced a plan to tax non-recycled plastic packaging. The plan was unveiled in the Multiannual Financial Framework. The plan does not include a direct link to reduction of plastic at source or improved collection. This will be based on data from the Extended Producer Responsibility schemes. References also made to the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.


In the UK budget on 29th October 2018, The Chancellor announced the introduction of a new tax, from April 2022, on plastic packaging with food and drinks companies being taxed on plastics that do not contain at least 30% recycled content. This change should help reduce plastic waste and drive demand for recycled plastic content and focus companies on seeking new packaging solutions.


Plastics innovation


Measures will be achieved through obligations directed at member states. Additional and targeted initiatives to support action may be considered in due course. Support through information awareness campaigns and through market structures and regulatory regimes. Member States may be able to secure EU funds for initiatives aimed, in part, at remediation or support schemes through bodies such as the European Solidarity Corps.

The 2018 Spring Statement announced £20 million of funding for plastics innovation and the Plastic Research Innovation Fund has been launched - £2m for UK Circular Plastics Network, £8m for creative research and £10m for business-led research and development.



Implications of Brexit   

With the continued uncertainties surrounding Brexit, we do not yet know the terms of the future trading relationship with the EU.

If the UK leaves the EU as planned on 29 March 2019, our EU trading partners will expect the UK to have similar standards in order to remove barriers to trade.  

The UK will therefore need to ensure continuous updating to keep pace with evolving EU standards and differences will occur. Domestic legislation could fall behind or become stricter depending on any change of government or policy but the Resources & Waste Strategy consultation launched on 18th December 2018 seeks to address a considerable number of challenges and has been generally well received by a range of UK stakeholders.

Companies and industry groups therefore need to closely monitor both EU and UK legislation and policy and recognise that the UK, through government policy, are actively working on and publishing a wide range of environmental regulatory frameworks.

UK Plastics Pact

Large players have taken the initiative to agree their own standards. 42 supermarkets and food companies have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact

Plastics Pact – 2025 targets

·         Make 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable

·         70% of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted

·         30% of all plastic packaging to include recycled material

Implications for the food industry

Companies using food packaging and food consumption utensils need to consider rapidly what their responses will be and what alternatives can be used, such as bioplastics or alternative, appropriately sourced materials. As we know even substitute materials, especially plant based, will also need to be assessed for their sustainability impact, whilst companies producing non-plastic packaging have an opportunity to demonstrate the inherent and sustainable production benefits of their packaging.

If you have any queries regarding the legal developments or if you are interested about plastic replacement strategies in your food value chain, please contract:

[email protected]

[email protected]

Our content explained

Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

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