COP26: Understanding plastics and their impact on our world

From 31 October to 12 November 2021, the United Kingdom is hosting COP26, a meeting of world leaders brought together by the United Nations to tackle climate change.

Previous COP meetings have brought about new policies intended to change the world for good by reducing carbon emissions and lowering human impact on our planet, so this historic meeting is expected to be a pivotal moment with lasting outcomes that will benefit the planet.

This month we are highlighting the event and questioning the role that plastics have in our world today, and how we can use plastics in the most sustainable way.

What is the environmental impact of plastic? Why use it?

In recent years, we have become more aware of the negative impact that plastics can have on habitats – but when we think about environmental impact, we need to think about it more broadly. Most plastics are made from fossil fuels and, according to the WWF, 4% of the world’s annual petroleum production is used to make plastic. And a recent study1 highlighted that in 2015 the production of new plastic emitted the equivalent of more than a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), equal to over 3% of global fossil fuel emissions.

However, the solutions are not straight forward. Simply switching from one material to another can sometimes lead to different environmental impacts or even increased carbon emissions. Read more about material alternatives to plastics here. And sometimes plastic can be the right material to use for other reasons, for example it is light-weight, durable and doesn’t break when you drop it.

What is the solution to reduce the environmental impact of plastics?

There is no single solution, lots of approaches are needed.

Firstly, we need to reduce the use of unnecessary plastic. And where we don’t need packaging at all, we shouldn’t simply switch from one material to another. This reduction could be through removing packaging entirely, for example from fresh fruit and vegetables where it isn’t needed to preserve the product. It could also be through replacing single use plastic, with refillable packaging.

Importantly, where we do use plastic, we need it to be made using recycled material. This is critical because it reduces the amount of energy and oil that is needed to produce new items. For example, it takes 75% less energy to make a bottle out of recycled plastic compared to new plastic.

And in order to use recycled plastic in new products and packaging, it must be designed to be recyclable and of course we need to ensure it is collected and reprocessed.

All of us have a role to play.

What is happening?

The good news is that lots of work is happening to reduce the impact of plastics on our planet.

In 2022 , the UK government will introduce a Plastics Tax designed to increase recycled content in packaging. Another policy is Extended Producer Responsibility, meaning that businesses that use non-recyclable plastic will pay more into the waste management system than those that use recyclable plastic. In the future there will also be deposit return schemes for drinks packaging to increase the amount that gets recycled. These are just some of the ways that government is tackling plastic waste.

But government policy takes years to develop and implement and the plastic crisis is now.

The UK Plastics Pact was launched in 2018 with an aim to eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastics, and increase the amount of plastic being reused, recycled and composted. Members of The UK Plastics Pact include almost all supermarkets and most brands sold through them, as well as the recycling industry, NGOs and governments, all working together to make this a reality.

Since the launch of the Pact, there has been a reduction in plastic packaging with a 40% reduction in plastic packaging listed as problematic and unnecessary. And subtle changes that we see on the shelf has made a big difference to make it easier to recycle plastics – for instance Coca-Cola changed its iconic Sprite bottle from green to transparent, enabling the bottles to be recycled back into bottes. Businesses are using more recycled plastic in their packaging, despite in many cases, the cost of using recycled plastic is higher than using new plastic. While more needs to be done to remove unnecessary plastic packaging, recycling services are improving. Few people can recycle plastic bags and wrapping at home, so the supermarkets are starting to provide collection points. At Tesco’s, Sainsburys and the Co-op people can take all types of plastic bags and wrappers such as crisp packets and bread bags to be recycled.

So, while there are still opportunities to address plastic waste and tackle its impact on the environment, change is already underway and positive moves are already being made.

How can I use plastics sustainably?

While plastics cannot be completely removed from our lives, fortunately there are ways that we can all use plastics sustainably and reduce their impact on the planet – and that’s by using the 4 Rs:


By reducing the amount of plastic we use; we are lessening the amount of plastic that needs to be produced. This means that there is a lower demand for raw materials, and the reducing need for new plastic can reduce carbon emissions in production and transit. Reducing plastic also limits the risk of plastic leaking into the environment, for instance through littering.
An easy way to do this at home is to use reusable drinks bottles, hot drinks cups, cutlery, and containers. When we go shopping we can take our own reusable bags and purchase loose fruit and vegetables rather than pre-packed – most fruit and veg should be washed before we eat it anyway!


Refilling plastics when possible can also have an impact – means that less plastic is needed on the market; this helps to eliminate plastic waste and can significantly reduce emissions.

The good news is that lots of refill options are now available. Some retailers, such as Waitrose and Asda, are testing refill of certain products in stores and learning more about how we shop, with the aim to make this more widely available in future.

And refill doesn’t stop at food and drink – many cleaning, laundry, and beauty and grooming products are now available with refill options.


By recycling, we are keeping the valuable materials (in this case plastic) in use and out of the environment. Recycling also reduces the need for raw materials, lowers emissions linked to production of new products, and saves energy. In fact, making four shampoo bottles from recycled materials uses the same energy as making one from scratch.

More and more people in the UK are recycling, and it is becoming easier to recycle all the plastics we use. All of us can recycle plastic bottles at home (drinks bottles as well as cleaning and personal care bottles), and most of us can recycle pots, tubs and trays. Work is also happening to make plastic bags and wrapping easier to recycle at supermarket front of store locations.

To find out more about the plastics you can recycle at home and in your area, visit


If it is not an option to reduce, refill, or recycle an item at home; in some instances, it is possible to return an item for recycling. Terracycle have options to recycle items such as toothpaste tubes and coffee pods; while Boots and Maybelline are some of the brands offering takeback schemes for beauty and grooming products.



1R. Geyer
A brief history of plastics
Mare Plasticum – The Plastic Sea, Springer International Publishing (2020)