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What a Christmas waste! – Government urged to get tough on packaging as new figures show scale of waste in the festive season

5 December 2022

Environment organisations say Government delays on waste and packaging reform will lead to unnecessary waste this Christmas. They are calling on the Government to prioritise plans to make businesses tackle waste in 2023.

The call comes as new estimates are published today on the huge amount of plastic and other packaging waste that will end up in landfill or will be incinerated this Christmas, during the most wasteful time of year.

New UK Christmas waste estimates from Wildlife and Countryside Link show that:

- Around 104,946 tonnes of plastic packaging are likely to end up burnt, in landfill, or exported overseas over the festive period – equivalent to the weight of more than 1000 blue whales or 218,00 polar bears

- 2,164 tonnes of aluminium foil could be thrown away and not recycled this Christmas – the equivalent weight of 40,000 snow leopards or 360 elephants

- Up to 109km2 of Christmas wrapping paper could end up in the waste bin – that’s 38 times the area of the City of London

- Approximately 277,400 tonnes of cardboard are likely to be used over the holidays – when laid end to end that is long enough to wrap around the world 10 times.

Please see the notes to editors for calculations.

Some of the Christmas waste items that are bulking up our bin bags include: excessive (and often hard to recycle) plastic packaging in childrens’ toys and other gifts, unnecessary food packaging, disposable foil cooking trays, and glitter-covered (non-recyclable) cards and wrapping paper.

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:
“Christmas can be bags of fun without massive bags of landfill, but too often consumers end-up pushed toward waste by the choices on offer. Businesses shouldn’t be allowed to barrage consumers with unnecessary packaging or place badly-designed single-use items on the market. Who wants to see extra plastic and cardboard bulking out the shelves, or fragile single-use items that end up in our rivers and ocean?

“Industry-led voluntary initiatives have failed to deliver the scale of change we need, and 2022 has seen Government plans to tackle waste fall far behind track. Next year, Government should prioritise its Deposit Return and Producer Responsibility plans, so that we can finally stem the flow of unnecessary waste.”

Nina Schrank, plastics campaign lead at Greenpeace UK said:
“Delaying their waste targets has put the government squarely on the naughty list this Christmas. When the public are left facing this year's festive waste they’ll be asking why companies keep foisting so much onto us. Reducing plastic waste and moving to reusable alternatives is the answer, but we’ll need real ambition from the government to help make that happen. That means backing strong targets to cut single use plastic, finally rolling out a deposit return scheme and banning waste exports. Delivering on these should be at the front of decision makers' minds when they’re thinking up their New Year's Resolutions for 2023.”

Sandy Luk, Marine Conservation Society CEO, said:
“Every year, at beach cleans across the country, our volunteers find plastic pollution. At this year’s Great British Beach Clean, on average, there was a piece of plastic or polystyrene for every metre of UK beach cleaned. However, we’ve also seen that plastic bans and policies work, with widespread reductions in single-use plastic items.

“We need more ambitious policies to reduce the use of single-use plastic, including in packaging over the festive season and beyond. For the sake of our seas, and the wildlife that call it home, the UK Government need to get tough on plastic.”

Paula Chin, Senior Policy Adviser at WWF-UK, said:
“Waste isn’t just for Christmas – it’s got a long-lasting impact on people and planet and producers and retailers need to take more responsibility for it. Clear disincentives for badly-designed products and problematic packaging waste are key to creating action across the board. We can’t afford further delays to crucial policies, the Government needs to ensure the waste policies are higher up their agenda in 2023.”

Allison Ogden-Newton OBE, CEO of Keep Britain Tidy, said:
“Christmas is a time for families and festivities but sadly, it’s also the time when we produce waste like at no other time of year, largely through packaging. The reality is that the byproduct of our celebrations and gifting all-too-often ends up in landfill, littered, burnt, or exported - a suite of disastrous outcomes with devastating consequences for people and planet.

“Through Extended Producer Responsibility we will see businesses incentivised to develop efficient and low-impact packaging, and a Deposit Return Scheme will mean more materials being reused and recycled in a closed-loop system that can’t come quickly enough. Our already rubbish recycling rates have plateaued, and to turn this poor position around, our Government needs to execute their plans which have been delayed for too long. The best gift we can give our children for Christmas is a future for the planet they will inherit and that starts with Government pressing the go button on this desperately needed policy.”

Waste is a major issue in the UK, with less than half of our waste (44.4%) officially counted as recycled and the remaining rubbish largely either incinerated, exported, or ending up in landfill. Other estimates suggest the actual recycling rate may be much lower than official figures. The Big Plastic Count, for example, found only 12% of plastic packaging being recycled in the UK with the rest exported to other countries to deal with (17%), buried in landfill (25%) or burnt in incinerators (45%).

England failed to hit its target to recycle 50% of waste by 2020, with official recycling rates actually falling 1.5% in 2020 compared to 2019, declining to 44%. The pandemic, with reduced rubbish collections and increased single-use waste, certainly contributed to the decline in recycling in this period. But English recycling rates reflected poorly when compared to Wales, which saw a very slight increase of 0.1% in recycling rates in 2020, rising to 56.5%.

There have been welcome promises from businesses to reduce excess packaging and waste, most notably among supermarkets, such as Sainsbury's, Morrison’s and Aldi’s pledge to halve own brand plastic packaging by 2025. But such an approach is piecemeal, and voluntary promises have often failed to deliver. For example, MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recently criticised progress from supermarkets and suppliers as having been too slow, with only around 44% of plastic packaging recycled. A consistent Government-led approach, which enables ambitious change across all producers and retailers, is vital to deliver the sea-change reduction in waste that is needed.

The Westminster Government has to up ambition and start rolling out long-promised initiatives, such as bans on single-use plastic items and a Deposit Return Scheme, if it is to have any chance of achieving its target of 65% recycling for municipal waste by 2035. Yet, a year after the Government consulted on restricting the sale of polluting single use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene food boxes, no action has been forthcoming.

Environmentalists say that, though positive, bans on items alone are not enough to conquer our waste mountain. Nature groups are urging the Government to go further in its plans to cut excess waste at the source of production, to prevent one throw away item simply being replaced with another.

Green groups are calling on the Government to make the following key changes to reduce the amount of packaging waste that ends up on our shelves:

In its soon to be published Environment Act targets the Government is expected to confirm a target to halve residual waste by 2042. Environmentalists want to see greater ambition, and think the Government should also set targets for reducing single use plastic by half by 2025, and halving resource consumption by 2030, these targets should be backed up by strong policy measures to disincentivise excess packaging and waste. This should include:

- Deliver the Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging (EPR) as quickly as possible to properly embed the polluter pays principle and extended producer responsibility in UK packaging legislation. But boost the ambition of the proposed recycling rates in the proposals.

- A tougher plastic packaging tax. Which raises the required 30% minimum recycled content requirement and the £200 per tonne penalty for not meeting the threshold.

- Bans on the worst offending single use plastic items, need to be implemented. All non-essential items which won’t be recycled should be the target of these bans.

Require large retailers to promote and incentivise reuse in store. This should follow the lead of France which has put in place requirements to provide reusable containers in-store and a ban on plastic packaging for many fruits and vegetables.

For top tips for consumers this Christmas please see WWF-UK’s handy advice:


Notes to editors:

All of the estimated figures in this release are calculated by updating previous estimates utilising 2021 waste statistics. All estimates assume that Christmas waste amounts will have increased in line with annual changes in both waste and recycling rates.

Plastic packaging:

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 packaging waste increased 22.4% 2004 - 2021. (In 2021 - the most recent provisional DEFRA statistics, there were an estimated 2,514,360 tonnes of plastic packaging in our waste stream, a rise from 2,490,658 tonnes in 2020). 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 44.2% recycling rate (DEFRA), leaving 55.8% non-recycled in 2021, this would mean a total of 104,946 tonnes of plastic packaging being thrown away and not recycled at Christmas.

Most adult blue whales weigh between 72 and 135 tonnes. Taking 103 tonnes as the average, 104,946/103 =1018. Polar bears weigh 800-1300lbs (WWF-UK), taking 1050lbs (0.48 tonnes) as the average, 104,946/0.48=218,638.

Aluminium foil

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 209,000 tonnes in 2021 (provisional figure), a rise of 47%. Assuming the same 47% increase in Christmas foil waste - 8,589 tonnes of foil waste (including recycling) was produced at Christmas 2021. In 2004, 33,054 tonnes (23.4%) were recovered or recycled annually compared to 156,398 tonnes (74.8%) in 2021. Factoring in this higher recycling rate the amount of aluminium foil being thrown away and not recycled Christmas = around 2,164 tonnes.

African elephants can reach 6 tonnes in weight. 2,164 tonnes/ 6 = 360 elephants. Snow leopards can reach 120lbs (0.0544311 tonnes) 2,164 tonnes/0.0544311 = 39,756

Wrapping Paper

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 UK (DEFRA table 7). In 2021 the equivalent (provisional) figures were 5,389,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard waste (DEFRA) an increase of 44.6%. Assuming a similar increase in Christmas wrapping paper waste, (83sq km * 144.6% = 120 sq km) but factoring in a slightly higher rate of paper recycling (70.6% in 2021 compared to 67.6% in 2004 - so 29.4% ending up in bins compared to 32.4% ) the amount of wrapping paper ending up in the waste bin this year could be around 109 sq km (120/32.4% x 29.4= 109). 109 sq km = 38 times the city of London (2.9sq km)


It’s estimated that in Christmas 2019 we used 300,000 tonnes of cardboard during the festive season – enough to wrap Big Ben almost 260,000 times. If all the card packaging was laid side by side it would cover the return distance between London and Lapland, a hundred times over (London to Lapland = straight line distance of 1400 miles. Return distance = 2800 x 100 = 280,000 miles).

In 2021 we produced 5,388,626 tonnes of paper and cardboard waste with 70.6% recycled and 29.4% not recycled. This is down 2.5% from 5,524000 tonnes in 2019 when 69% was recycled and 31% was not recycled. Assuming the same proportional changes to Christmas use figures around 277,400 tonnes of cardboard will be used (97.5% of 300,000= 292,500). This is enough to wrap Big Ben more than 250,000 times (97.5% of 260,000 = 253500). It is also enough to go more than 270,000 miles when laid side by side (280,000 miles x 0.975 = 273,000 miles). Which would wrap round more than ten times the circumference of the world (world circumference = 24,901miles).

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