Britain’s recycling statistics

The latest statistics on how Brits reduce, recycle and reuse to help the planet.

In the UK, households throw away 23 million metric tonnes of waste per year, the equivalent of 394 kilograms per person. In 2018/2019, the UK recycled 43.5% of all waste, more than twice as much as the target (22.5%). This positive effect has stopped several fast-food chains offering plastic straws and started coming up with innovative ideas on how to stop using as much plastic.

The waste that we produce can have a massive strain on natural resources and requires an astonishing level of energy and power to deal with. As well as buying sustainable clothes, shopping locally and using renewable energy, we also need to learn how to deal with our waste in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

Quick facts

  • The total household waste volume in England in 2018/2019 was 23 million metric tonnes
  • The average household waste volume is 394kg per person
  • The public sector expenditure on waste management in 2018/2019 was £8.32 billion
  • 90% of Brits recycle plastic and glass making this the most popular method used by Brits to reduce their impact on the environment.
  • In 2021, three-quarters of Brits (75%) planned to make more changes to improve their impact on the environment.

Residual household waste refers to the volume of waste that is not recycled per household. The number is decreasing every year, showing that Brits are becoming better and better at recycling.

The volume of residual household waste has decreased gradually over time. In 2018/2019 it was almost half (537kg) the volume that it was in 2000/2001 (1,046kg).

Year Volume of residual household waste per household
2018/2019 537 kg
2017/2018 544 kg
2016/2017 557 kg
2015/2016 564 kg
2014/2015 558 kg
2013/2014 555 kg
2012/2013 551 kg
2011/2012 568 kg
2010/2011 598 kg
2009/2010 625 kg
2008/2009 669 kg
2007/2008 735 kg
2006/2007 798 kg
2005/2006 845 kg
2004/2005 911 kg
2003/2004 962 kg
2002/2003 1,024 kg
2001/2002 1,042 kg
2000/2001 1,046 kg

Recycling targets and rates by material

There is an EU target for the UK to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020. This target is divided into smaller targets for each waste material in the UK. The UK’s recycling rate for each material compared to the EU target rate is displayed in the chart below. By 2017, the UK successfully exceeded all the EU targets, showing it’s ready to meet higher goals.

Material Recycling rate
Metal 71.3%
Paper and cardboard 79%
Glass 67.6%
Plastic 46.2%
Wood 31.4%

Plastic recycling statistics

Plastic can be found in most modern products. With that in mind, the amount of plastic thrown away each year is enough to circle the earth four times over. Considering it takes only 12% of the energy required to produce plastic to recycle it, there’s no reason for us not to separate our rubbish items and deliver them to dedicated recycling points.

  • The most common type of litter collected on a UK beach is plastic/polystyrene pieces. Plastic is four times more common than the next biggest type of litter, glass.
  • In 2018, 81% of people reported that they believed the oceans would be full of plastic in 50 years’ time.
  • 84% of respondents aged 55+ supported the ban of disposable coffee cups.

Sources of plastic waste

Packaging products are the biggest contributor to plastic waste. The UK exports 12.7% of all its plastic waste to other countries for recycling purposes. Almost 7 in 10 plastic waste items (67%) come from packaging. This is unsurprising given the huge dependence on plastic both in production and to protect items. 7.3% comes from WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) and 4.2% from our cars.

Sector Percentage of total plastic waste
Packaging 67%
WEEE 7.3%
Automotive 4.2%
Construction and demolition 3.5%
Agriculture 3.1%
Non packaging household 2.3%
Fishing/aquaculture 0.1%
Other 12%

Which types of plastic products are mostly used in the UK?

The consumption numbers for different products that use single-use plastics in 2018 are shown below. Cigarette filters are the biggest contributor to the number of single-use plastics, with 45.8 billion consumed in 2018. Stirrers and straws also both had significant numbers, both exceeding 40 billion.

Type of plastic item Number used
Cigarette filters 45.8bn
Stirrers 44.1bn
Straws 42bn
Cutlery 16.5bn
Cotton buds 13.2bn
Wet wipes 10.8bn
Drinks bottles 10.1bn
Crisp packets 8.3bn
Sweet wrappers 6bn
Food containers 5.2bn
Sanitary towels 4.1bn
Drinks cups and lids 4.1bn

Deposit schemes as a solution

It’s not only plastic and paper that can be recycled. The majority of our household items and clothing can be given a second lease of life. A deposit scheme where you get money for recycling could be helpful in collecting the waste. It seems like an idea that would work in the UK, as 58% of Brits answered they are “very likely” to use a deposit scheme if one was set up, 22% “likely” and only 10% said they were “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to use it.

What kind of items we’re keen on returning for recycling purposes seems to affect how much Brits would embrace the scheme. 54% say they would return glass bottles and 53% would return plastic bottles if they got money in return, while only 14% would do so with cotton buds.

Household item Share of respondents
Glass botles 54%
Plastic bottles 53%
Batteries 43%
Aluminium cans 40%
Mobile phones 35%
Small electrical items 33%
Coffee cups 32%
Light bulbs 31%
Disposable plastic bags 30%
Black plastic food trays 29%
Juice cartons 27%
Crisp packets 22%
Magazines 21%
Straws 19%
Wet wipes 16%
Cotton buds 14%

Glass and plastic bottles are the two most popular types of deposit schemes, having over half of all respondents agree that they might use them. Smaller household items still containing plastic are less likely to be dropped at a deposit location. It’s lucky then that the involvement of the local authority has increased in the past two decades.

3.46 times

more waste was recycled by the local authority in 2017/2018 than in 2000/2001.

How else do Brits intend to help the environment?

4 in 5 Brits (81%) make sure they don’t fully fill the kettle up when using it for 1 hot drink. 80% also use energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs and actively try not to waste food. When it comes to putting our money where our mouth is, 15% of Brits have now moved their investments into ethical or socially-responsible funds and 17% regularly carpool as a way to reduce CO2 emissions.

While 97% of Brits already take action to help out the environment, 75% planned on making at least 1 lifestyle change in 2021 to help out. The most popular adjustment Brits plan on making was improving their waste consumption in some way, such as buying products with less packaging or using less water, with 1 in 2 (50%) intending to do so in 2021. Other common intentions included using alternative or energy-efficient transport (45%), as well as ethical and second-hand shopping (42%). Reducing our food waste and meat consumption came in a close fourth, with 2 in 5 Brits (39%) intending to do so over the next 12 months.

Action % plan to start doing this over the next year
Produce less waste (Using environmentally-friendly cleaning and hygiene products, buy products with less packaging, re-use plastic, use less water, go paperless for bills, recycle 50%
More efficient or alternative transport (Buy an electric or hybrid vehicle, take public transport, cycle, drive less, walk more, car sharing/pooling) 45%
Ethical and second-hand shopping (Buy ethical and sustainable clothes, buy second-hand clothes, toys and furniture, buy fewer clothes) 42%
Reduce food waste and meat consumption (Eat less meat or fish, buy soon-to-expire food, reduce food waste) 39%
Reduce flights (Take shorter or fewer flights, stop flying altogether) 23%
Garden more (Buy plants to combat air pollution, plant trees, grow food) 20%
Green investments (Move investments into ethical funds and/or companies) 17%
Use appliances more efficiently (Use energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, not filling the kettle up fully for one drink) 14%
Top 10 actions Brits intend to do % that will start to do it over the next year
Buy ethical and sustainable clothes 27%
Using environmentally-friendly cleaning products 22%
Using environmentally-friendly self-care and hygiene products 22%
Eat locally grown food 22%
Buy plants to combat air pollution 20%
Plant trees 19%
Stopped using wipes, wet wipes etc 18%
Buy an electric or hybrid vehicle 18%
Grow my own food 18%
Move my investments into ethical funds and/or companies 17%


Office for National Statistics
Marine Conservation Society

Click here for more research. For all media enquiries, please contact:

Matt Mckenna
UK communications manager
T: +44 20 8191 8806

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