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The plastic cost of Christmas – the weight of 215,000 polar bears in plastic waste

The plastic cost of Christmas will still be huge this year despite increasing recycling rates, 23 nature charities co-ordinated by Wildlife and Countryside Link, are warning today. [1]

20 December 2018

Even though plastic packaging recycling rates have risen, we are still recycling or recovering less than half of the plastic we use, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes ending up in our rivers, oceans and landfill, killing our wildlife.

As the charities publish new estimates on the staggering amounts of plastic packaging and other waste this Christmas, charities are calling for ambitious action to reduce plastic from supermarkets, packaging manufacturers and other businesses, following significant measures announced in the Government’s Waste and Resources Strategy this week (Tues 18 Dec). The coalition of nature groups is also calling on the Government to go even further in its plans to cut plastic production at the source, to tackle our ever-deepening waste-ocean.
New UK Christmas waste estimates from Wildlife and Countryside Link:

  • More than 103,000 tonnes of plastic packaging will be thrown away and not recycled in the UK this Christmas– which is the weight of almost 215,000 polar bears [2]
  • Almost 3,600 tonnes of aluminium foil will end up in landfill, weighing the same as 5,500 bottle-nosed dolphins [3]
  • Around 106 square km of wrapping paper are likely to be used in the UK this year – approximately one fifth of this (19.2 square km), more than the combined size of all the Royal Parks in London could end up in landfill [4]
  • The UK uses a staggering 300,000 tonnes of card packaging at Christmas (Source WRAP) – the equivalent weight of 50,000 Orcas (the estimated number of all Orcas alive today)[5]

Chris Tuckett, Director of Programmes at Marine Conservation Society and Chair of the Link Marine Working Group, said: ‘None of us want the price of our plastic-wrapped Christmas food or our plastic-packaged children’s toys to be dying wildlife, but that is the reality. Consumers want change, they want the choice not to have their food smothered in plastic. But often there is no other option in our supermarkets, and it's far too complicated to figure out what plastic can be recycled. Government moves in the new Waste and Resources Strategy to make producers slash plastic production are very positive but given the scale of the problem we need to go even further, faster.’

Louise Edge, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace, said: ‘It is staggering to think that this Christmas alone the weight of 215,000 polar bears in plastic will just be thrown away. And frustratingly a huge proportion of that will be pointless plastic - packaging that was unnecessary in the first place. The Government has made welcome moves on tackling our waste in its new strategy, particularly by making companies who create and sell plastic packaging pay for dealing with the consequences. But prevention is better than a cure, so we need to do more to drastically cut production if we are to end this plastic plague.’

Sonja Eisfeld-Pierantonio, Policy Officer at Whale and Dolphin Conservation: said: ‘We all can do our bit as consumers to help save plastic going to landfill and ending up in the environment. Just because we can buy glittery wrapping paper or cards decorated with foil doesn’t mean that we have to. But while consumer action is essential we also have to plug the plastic pollution pump at its source. It is vital that the Government sends a very strong message to business that plastic waste needs to disappear, and back this up with radical plans to slash plastic production.’

Dr Lyndsey Dodds, Head of UK Marine Policy, WWF: ‘Living a sustainable lifestyle - from the food we eat to the clothes we wear - is a vital step in protecting our wildlife and our environment. People will be shocked to learn about the amount of waste we produce at Christmas and also frustrated that more isn’t being done by the government and businesses to reduce the amount of packaging used. The first step is for each of us to say no to single-use plastic and to push the government to make better choices for our world, including the key step of requiring businesses to slash plastic production.'

Samantha Harding, Litter Programme Director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: ‘Our countryside and environment will ultimately pay the price for the vast amount of packaging produced over the Christmas period. We need the manufacturers of these products to take full responsibility for the damage that they cause, and the Government has taken welcome steps to overhaul our waste system this week. However, the best way to tackle the environmental devastation caused by waste, is by reducing the amount we produce in the first place.’

The amount of Christmas plastic waste ending up in UK bins rather than recycling was estimated by Defra to be around 125,000 tonnes in Christmas 2004. Wildlife and Countryside Link estimated this figure had fallen to 114,000 tonnes in 2017, due to increased recycling. Recycling rates have risen further to 44.9%, causing the amount of plastic waste at Christmas to fall to 103,000 tonnes, based on calculations using official annual Government plastic packaging waste figures.

However our plastic consumption and waste may actually be much higher than official figures suggest, due to likely under-reporting of waste through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes. We could already be producing as much as 4.9 million tonnes of plastic waste per year in the UK according to Eunomia.

The overall amount of plastic we are using is also steadily increasing, WWF and Eunomia estimate UK plastic consumption could rise by 20% by 2030, to an enormous 6.3 million tonnes. Recycling rates would therefore have to rise at a much faster rate than our plastic consumption to create a substantial dent in our plastic waste mountain. The vast majority (two-thirds) of our plastic waste is made up of plastic packaging, this is much higher than in other EU countries in large-part due to our higher use of convenience food.

The NGOs are urging the UK Government to implement more direct requirements on producers to reduce plastic production, in addition to the welcome measures on tackling waste once it is created which were announced in the Waste and Resource Strategy this week:

  • Immediately ban ‘pointless’ plastic items such as stirrers, sachets, cutlery, utensils and straws and ‘problem’ plastic items such as PVC, black plastics and polystyrene containers
  • Prioritise phasing out ‘pointless plastics’ (e.g. unnecessary food packaging), ‘replaceable plastics’ (such as plastic cups, for which there are sustainable alternatives) and ‘problem plastics’ which are not easily recyclable
  • Implement item specific taxes and reduction targets (e.g. reconsider a tax on disposable coffee cups) to encourage a shift to reusable and lower impact alternatives, monitor and review charges increasing them as required to incentivise further plastic reduction
  • Bring forward Deposit Return Schemes to 2020 rather than 2023. A 5-year delay to implement these schemes is unnecessarily long. Scotland’s DRS scheme will be in place by 2020.


Notes to Editors:


  • The UK public is expecting to receive up to 70 million unwanted gifts this festive season alone. (Research conducted by Opinium amongst 2,010 UK adults 30 Nov-3 Dec 2018) for WWF)
  • UK residents estimated they threw away approximately 100 million black bin bags’ worth of waste during Christmas time last year (, December 2017)

1. Wildlife and Countryside Link is the biggest coalition of wildlife and environment charities in England The charities supporting these calls are: A Rocha UK, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Born Free Foundation, British Canoeing, British Mountaineering Council, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Client Earth, Earthwatch, Greenpeace, Humane Society International, IFAW-UK, Institute of Fisheries Management, Marinelife, Marine Conservation Society, Rewilding Britain, The Rivers Trust, RSPCA, Salmon and Trout Conservation, Wales Environment Link, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, WWT - Wildfowl & Wetland Trust, Wildlife Gardening Forum, The Wildlife Trusts, WWF.

2. The UK created 1,845,966 tonnes of plastic packaging waste in 2004 (DEFRA table 2) with 344,317 tonnes recovered or recycled - 18.65% (table 7), therefore 81.35% was not recycled. DEFRA 2004 figures showed 125,000 tonnes of UK plastic waste was thrown away that Christmas. Assuming the same ratio of recycling to non-recycling the total amount of Christmas plastic waste (including recycling) at Christmas 2004 would have been 153,657 tonnes (125,000/81.35 * 100). Annual plastic waste (recycling and landfill) increased 22.4% 2004 - 2016. (In 2016 - the most recent DEFRA statistics, see table 4 - there were an estimated 2,260,000 tonnes of plastic packaging in our waste stream). Assuming the same 22.4% increase in Christmas waste there would be 188,076 tonnes of plastic packing waste overall (122.4% of 153,657). Factoring in the higher 44.9% recycling rate (DEFRA table 4), leaving 55.1% non-recycled in 2016, this would mean a total of 103,630 tonnes of plastic packaging being thrown away and not recycled at Christmas (down from 113,742 tonnes last Christmas). Polar bears weigh 800-1300lbs (WWF), taking 1050lbs (0.48 tonnes) as the average, 103,630/0.48=215,896.

3. Around 4,200 tonnes of aluminium foil was thrown away in the UK in Christmas 2004. (DEFRA). In 2004, 33,054 tonnes (23.4%) were recovered or recycled annually. Assuming the same ratio for Christmas foil waste, the total amount of foil waste (including recycling) at Christmas 2004 would have been 5,843 tonnes (4,200/76.6*100). Annual aluminium waste (including recycling) rose from 141,500 tonnes in 2004 to 177,000 tonnes in 2016 – an increase of 25%. Assuming the same 25% increase in Christmas foil waste - 7,304 tonnes of foil waste (including recycling) was produced at Christmas 2016. In 2004, 33,054 tonnes (23.4%) were recovered or recycled annually compared to 90,000 tonnes (50.8%) in 2016 (49.2% going to landfill). Factoring in this higher recycling rate the amount of aluminium foil being thrown away at Christmas = 3,594 tonnes of aluminium foil could be thrown away and not recycled this Christmas. Male bottle-nose dolphins can reach 650kg (0.65 tonnes) 3,594/0.65=5,529.

4. DEFRA estimated in 2004 that up to 83 sq km of Christmas wrapping paper ended up in UK rubbish bins. In 2004 3,725,652 of paper waste was generated in the (DEFRA table 7). In 2016 the equivalent figures were 4,749,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard waste (DEFRA) an increase of 27.5%. Assuming a similar increase in Christmas wrapping paper waste, 106km of wrapping paper could be used this year, but with paper recycling rates significantly higher now (81.9% in 2016) than in 2004 (67.6%) the majority of this should be recycled.

5. Male orcas tend to weigh in excess of 6 tonnes (WWF) 300,000/6 = 50,000 Orcas, which could be all orcas currently in existence (IUCN Redlist).

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