Households are using billions of throwaway plastic bread and fruit and veg produce bags a year - the vast majority of which aren’t being recycled, The Scotsman can reveal.
Only one in 10 local authorities recycle plastic ‘film’ - which also includes plastic bags for frozen food, pet food, confectionary, cereal and toilet rolls as well as shrink wrap and magazine wrappings - according to the Recoup recycling charity.
It accounts for a quarter of all household plastic waste by weight and includes more than 3.5 billion bread bags and 1.3 billion fruit and veg bags a year. UK consumers use nearly three quarters of a million tonnes of it a year, almost all of which is incinerated.
“I’m deeply concerned that so much of our everyday lightweight plastic isn’t getting recycled - that has to change,” said Green Party peer, Baroness Jenny Jones.
“The public want to recycle, but local authorities are failing to do their bit by making it possible,” she said.
Plastic film is rarely recycled by councils because it’s difficult and costly to do so, MPs say. It has a much larger surface area than harder plastic items such as bottles and tubs - while also being much lighter. This makes it far more economic for cash-strapped local authorities - 47 per cent of which had their waste and recycling budget cut last year - to focus on harder plastics.
“These plastic bags have been ignored by policymakers because they are so light that they don’t make a huge contribution to our recycling goals. They are not really part of the municipal set of objectives,” said Mary Creagh MP, chair of the cross party Environmental Audit Committee.
“But they are hugely damaging if they get into the environment, where they can ensnare wildlife,” she added.
As well as the vast numbers of fruit, veg and bread bags that aren’t getting recycled, nearly 2 billion supermarket bags-for-life and single-use carrier bags are going unrecycled because only one in five UK councils recycle them, according to Wrap, the waste and resources charity.
Carrier bag use has reduced dramatically since the 5p carrier bag charge was introduced but there is still much scope to cut their use further, campaigners said.
Plastic bags of all types can blow from bins or landfill sites into the street and on into fields and rivers, eventually finding their way into the sea, causing problems for wildlife along the way.
An Environment Department spokesman said: “We are driving further, faster action with our landmark Resources and Waste Strategy which will cut our reliance on single-use plastics and help tackle the problem of packaging by making producers pay the full cost of recycling or disposing their packaging waste.”
The government has also proposed a tax from 2022 on all plastic packaging - including film - that isn’t made from at least 30 per cent recycled material. It hopes that forcing supermarkets and manufacturers to foot the bill for disposing of the plastic they generate will provide an incentive to improve infrastructure and recycling rates for plastic film.
Meanwhile, a government proposal to bring greater consistency to recycling and collection across all UK local authorities should reduce household confusion about what they can’t and can’t recycle and make film recycling easier, campaigners said.