What Happens to Plastic Waste?

Written by Ollie Wilkinson

urgh, plastic. What a waste

The world produces 400 million tonnes of plastic waste per year. 400 million tonnes! And less than 10% of this is recycled.  Wondering what the heck is going on? You’re not alone. Uncover the myth about recycling and find out what really happens to plastic waste.

Plastic waste: the staggering stats and frightful facts

Here’s why plastic’s a load of rubbish:

What happens to plastic waste?

what happens to plastic waste

When left to linger, plastic waste doesn’t decompose. Instead, it takes up to 500 years to break down into harmful microplastics, which can then leach toxins into our soil, water and atmosphere. The Big Plastic Count tracked thousands of pieces of the UK’s household plastic waste over the space of a week, and concluded that:

  • • 12% of it is recycled in the UK. Yes, just 12%! This is not a typo!
  • • 17% is shipped overseas (each day, the UK exports roughly 1,800 tonnes of plastic waste).
  • • A quarter of it is landfilled.
  • • Almost half (46%) is incinerated.

Plastic waste is “managed” (to use that term loosely!) in several ways, which is why it can be seen all over the world, from wheelie bins and recycling centres to landfills and the ocean. It really is up there with dog hair, LEGO bricks and superhero movies in terms of things that are just everywhere you look. A plastic bag was even found in the world’s deepest ocean trench not too long ago!

The way the world uses (and misuses) plastic is having a huge impact on our planet, with 11 million tonnes of plastic leaking into the sea each year. Some scientists even predict that plastic will outnumber fish by 2050, due to the waste drifting from landfill sites and littered streets into our beautiful ocean.

Related Reading: How Much Plastic is in the Ocean?

What happens to recycled plastic?

Recycled plastic (as in the stuff that actually ends up recycled) is usually dealt with mechanically and:

  1. 1. Collected by local authorities and dropped off at recycling centres.
  2. 2. Sorted, processed and categorised by automated machines into polymer groups. These groups are based on how the plastics react to heat, and are split into thermoplastics, thermosets and elastomers.
  3. 3. Ground up and shredded into tiny flakes.
  4. 4. Melted into recycled pellets.
  5. 5. Moulded and “downcycled” to shape new items.

But – and this is a big, Nikki Minaj-sized butt – over half the plastic packaging the government claims is recycled is actually shipped abroad for other countries to deal with. That’s right, it’s not just incinerators on fire – the government’s pants are, too.

Greenpeace exposed the shocking truth behind plastic recycling in 2021, claiming “the amount the UK sends abroad is the equivalent of three and a half Olympic swimming pools every single day.” No wonder we’re out of our depth when it comes to waste!

The plastic recycling myth: How much plastic recycling is actually recycled?

Recycling plastic is as big a mythical ruse as big foot asking the abominable snowman to play 52-card pick up. Okay, maybe not that much. But it’s close!

In 2022, Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic teamed-up Avengers style to conduct the “UK’s biggest investigation into household plastic waste”, ingeniously named, The Big Plastic Count.

The ground-breaking study gathered data from almost a quarter of a million people, covering 97,948 households over the course of an average week. In just seven days, 6.4 million pieces of plastic were tracked. And only a measly 12% of this was actually recycled at UK reprocessing facilities.

The stats in The Big Plastic Count tell us the average UK household throws out 66 pieces of plastic per week. That’s an estimated 3,432 pieces each year. If only 12% of this is recycled, that means the average household bins 3,020 pieces of unrecycled plastic every 12 months.

These figures suggest that, collectively, UK households bin 96.57 billion pieces of plastic a year. And only 11.59 billion of those pieces make it through the entire recycling process.

Globally, EVEN LESS plastic is recycled, with a 2019 survey claiming less than 10% of plastic items are recycled.

Why is plastic hard to recycle?

Recycling plastic is expensive, time-consuming and limited. There are thousands of different types of plastic, all with their own unique, complex ingredients. Sorting and processing these can be a labour-intensive nightmare, which is why local authorities have conflicting rules on which ones you can recycle.

Plastic also has a limited value, and usually has to be downgraded each time it’s recycled. Known as downcycling, this is when single-use plastic packaging is shredded, melted and converted into less technical elements of a different item. This is why you’ll sometimes see clothing that’s “made from recycled plastic bottles”. 

Metal and glass, on the other hand, are much more recyclable because they hold their durable, flexible and monetary value. Our Life Cycle Analysis even revealed that our returnable glass bottles are infinitely recyclable!

Here are a few reasons why only 10-12% of plastic is recycled:


Melting, moulding, washing, sorting and processing plastic is energy and labour-intensive. And despite the huge costs to our lovely planet, it’s financially cheaper to make new plastic than it is to recycle it. This is why you see so much single-use plastic packaging (or what we like to call, no-use plastic packaging).

Limitations to quality

Much like leftover takeaway food, plastic gets worse and worse each time it’s reheated. This means that every time a piece of plastic is recycled, the quality of the new product diminishes.

Complicated rules

The recycling rules for plastic are as complicated as deciphering the code for the Matrix. But while it’s easy to put un-recyclables in your recycling bin, wrongly disposing of plastic can be drastic.

According to one waste disposal company, if an item that’s not 100% recyclable ends up at a recycling centre, it can damage the equipment, decrease efficiency and contaminate all the other recyclable materials. Uh oh!

Wanna make sure you get your recycling spot on? Read our guide on “what to recycle”. Or skip ahead and learn why reusing is better!

Plastic with food residue can’t be recycled

You may have the best, most conscious intentions when tossing plastic into your recycling. But sometimes, that’s not enough. All it takes is a pesky dribble of oil or pizza stain to ruin a perfectly recyclable plastic container.

Plastic needs to be clean as a whistle to be recycled, which is why you’ll see lots of labels asking you to “wash” or “rinse” food packaging before tossing it in the bin.

Plastic items are made of thousands of different types of plastic

Plastic is not a one-size-fits-all material. There are thousands of different types, made up of varying characteristics and chemicals. This makes it near-impossible to sort, process and recycle plastics together.

We’re producing too much plastic

Recycling centres are struggling to keep up with the big plastic tap. And it’s no surprise, given that one million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute.

During their weekly grocery shop, the average Brit buys two kilograms of plastic waste each week. Over the course of a year, that’s over 100 kilos of plastic going into your wheelie bins!

Bored of unexpected plastic in bagging areas? Join our milkround to make the switch to groceries in home-compostable packaging and return and reuse glass bottles!


Rumour has it, when Britney Spears sang “With a taste of a poison paradise, I’m addicted to you, don’t you know that you’re toxic?” she was highlighting the toxicity risks of recycling plastic into food and drink packaging. Who knew, right?

Almost 20 years after Britney’s banger topped the charts, Brunel University London conducted a study about the toxicity of recycling plastic and concluded “problems with the recycling process” may lead to chemicals leaching into plastic-bottled drinks.

Our return and reuse glass bottles are sounding better and better by the minute…

the world produces 400 million tonnes of plastic waste per year

Why is plastic not infinitely recyclable?

It may take hundreds of years to break down, but plastic’s recyclability is restricted because of its finite structural value. Unlike our glass bottles – which have been scientifically proven to be infinitely recyclable – plastic’s reusability is limited because each time it’s melted, crushed or reshaped, it degrades and loses some of its original qualities.

Dyes and chemical additives are added to many plastic items to make them more flexible or colourful. But this creates a huge, complicated mishmash of varying plastics, most of which get lumped together in household recycling bins.  

What’s the biggest problem with recycling plastic?

Wow. Where to begin!? There is no single issue with recycling plastic. Just like there’s no single issue with global warming. Or wearing a bikini to go skiing. These things have many issues, which combine to cause one ginormous headache.

Recycling plastic is costly for local authorities and the planet, putting a strain on purse strings and pollution levels. It’s also incredibly complicated, time-intensive and finite, due to plastic’s complex make-up, limited quality and fragility.

What happens to non-recyclable waste in the UK?

A lot of the UK’s non-recyclable waste is incinerated, which has caused heated debate among environmentalists. Incinerated waste generates hot water and steam, which is then used to power turbines and send energy back to the grid. But these big industrial sites also create noise, litter and air pollution, prompting complaints from local residents.

Between March 2020 and March 2021, local authorities in England sent 12.34 million tonnes of waste to be incinerated and converted into energy. And in 2020, UK incinerators generated 8,994-gigawatt hours from waste.

But incinerated or not, non-recyclable materials like plastic bags and clingfilm cost UK taxpayers up to £2 million per year. That’s enough money to install over 360 solar panels, according to the Energy Saving Trust!

Related Reading: Green Alternatives to Clingfilm

Ditching plastic doesn’t have to be drastic

Single-use plastic is used once yet lingers on our planet like a fart in an elevator. But unlike a fart in an elevator, it is always entirely avoidable.

Our species has given up many things during our time on this planet, from annoying exes, dial-up internet and the TV show Lost, right on through to mullets and MSN Messenger. There’s no reason why single-use plastic can’t join these forgotten relics of the past.

Just because something seemed a good idea or fit for purpose at the time doesn’t mean it always will be. Take that last sambuca shot you had. Or those rollerblades you bought while on holiday. At the time, both superb ideas. But now, not so much.

Ditching single-use packaging is one of the easiest things you can do to protect the planet, especially when you can get all of this and more, delivered right to your door:

Ready to banish single-use plastic to the history books, and become a fellow Gold Plastic Free Champion?

Start your green milkround to fight food waste and help stop tonnes of plastic bottles from polluting our planet!

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