UK plastic recycling needs overhaul University of Manchester report warns


A report from researchers at the University of Manchester has said that the UK’s plastic recycling system needs an overhaul.

According to a report published by the University’s One Bin to Rule Them All project, a lack of standardisation across the plastics supply chain is contributing to the UK’s failure to transition to a circular economy.


The report is a culmination of a three-year £1.5 million project led by the University of Manchester but also involving 25 industry partners. It focused on 30 diverse households in Greater Manchester to understand how they engaged with recycling.

It found that a lack of consistency in plastic packaging composition and messaging around recycling practice is causing confusion among consumers. This led to low levels of recycling as a result.

The report also found that there are 39 different bin regimes across the UK as well as 3,500 waste recycling plants with varying capabilities in infrastructure.

To combat this, the authors trialled a ‘one bin’ system introduced for all plastics whether recyclable or not. This found that almost a quarter of items collected were flexible packaging, which were challenging for the households to recycle. It found that a large-scale standardised approach to sorting, collecting and processing of flexible plastics would be crucial to improving recycling rates.

University of Manchester social science researcher at the Sustainable Consumption Institute Helen Holmes said: “Our research shows that there exists a strong desire among most consumers to recycle properly. Yet they are limited by a combination of unclear messaging and the complexity of the system. Compounding this, it is a postcode lottery as to what sorts of packaging can or cannot be recycled in a specific area, with capability and capacity varying at waste processing plants across the country.

“A ‘one bin’ system, supported by the introduction of clearer rules on material composition for producers and targeted investment in waste infrastructure for plastic recycling, could play a huge role in simplifying the process. Our analysis has also involved exploring the relative sustainability of different forms of plastic packaging and mapping out the best pathways for processing them. The implications for industry and policymakers are clear – we need greater standardisation and consistency across manufacturing and processing.

“A monumental step-change in the way we deal with our waste requires cross-sector collaboration between material manufacturers, local authorities and central government. This is a real challenge. However, the severity of the issue dictates that it can no longer be ignored if we are to truly achieve our sustainability goals.”