General Election 2024: A Plea for Plastics Policy

The General Election is around the corner and each party's manifesto has its own take on sustainability - but plastics do not seem to be at the forefront.

Waste plastic bottles across a beach

Credit: Pixabay/TheDigitalArtist

With only one party mentioning the term ‘recycling’, and the word ‘plastic’ being mentioned on only three occasions throughout all available manifestos, it’s clear to see that there is more work to be done to prioritise the plastics waste problem in government policy.

The Plastics Network at the University of Birmingham is calling for a radical rethinking of our relationship with plastics and plastics policy. This article explores why it's not just necessary, but urgent, for the incoming UK Government to implement policies on sustainable plastics.

The Plastic Problem

Over 10 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced worldwide, with nearly 8 billion tonnes discarded so far. Given the potential risks to human, animal, and environmental health, and the gaps in our understanding, it's insufficient to merely manage plastic; we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with it.

This is why we brought together voices from across the plastics landscape to develop a set of informed, evidence-based policy recommendations. These aim to foster a sustainable future for plastics in the UK, amplifying the positive contributions that plastics make to our lives while minimising their negative impacts throughout their life cycle.

Policy Recommendations

The Sustainable Plastics Policy Commission has put forth recommendations that include revaluing plastic 'waste' to support green growth and stimulate the development of next-generation plastics production and recycling technologies. The report also advocates for best practices in public sector procurement, including protocols on plastics life cycle assessments.

Furthermore, the Commission suggests the establishment of a national sustainable plastics innovation research centre to spur innovation and foster long-term, ambitious thinking. The UK Government is in a unique position to establish such a centre, bringing together diverse stakeholders and pooling skills and investment to foster collaboration across academic disciplines and industries.

A sustainable future for plastics is imperative for both our economy and the environment.

Baroness Molly Meacher, Chair, Sustainable Plastics Policy Commission

Why Act Now? Plastic and the UK’s Path to Net-Zero

Public concern about the plastic waste crisis is palpable, with a majority demanding action from governments and brands. This is underscored by the 'Blue Planet Effect', triggered by the influential 2017 BBC documentary, Blue Planet II, which led to many consumers choosing to consume less plastic. In addition, our survey data, in collaboration with YouGov, reveals that more UK residents are concerned about the potential threats posed by plastic pollution than the coronavirus pandemic, future pandemics, terrorism, economic collapse, natural disasters, and artificial intelligence. Thus, we know that focusing on sustainable plastics is not only environmentally beneficial but also aligns with public sentiment and the call for action.

However, as the world grapples with the net-zero challenge, the plastic waste crisis has become a pivotal transitional issue. Despite the escalating amounts of plastic waste and pollution, plastic remains a vital material in society due to its versatility, durability, lightness, and cost-effectiveness. It's ubiquitous, from life-saving medical equipment to everyday conveniences, often contributing to improved sustainability outcomes.

It's crucial to recognise that sustainable plastics policies, rather than a complete shift away from plastics, are an essential part of the journey to net zero. This is particularly true in the UK, where plastic consumption contributes to significant carbon dioxide emissions due to reliance on landfilling and incineration.

We urge the incoming UK government to consider our recommendations, and ultimately keep polymeric carbon in the economy for longer.

Notes for editors

  • For more information, please contact our press office at or call +44 (0)121 414 2772.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 40,000 students from over 150 countries.