Squaring the Circular Economy

How the UK Disproportionately Tasks Households with Meeting Targets for Plastic Recycling


  • Caragh Anne Clifford LJMU




plastic, recycling, circular economy, municipal waste


The United Kingdom has a plastic problem. In 2016, Britons produced more plastic waste per capita than the citizens of any other country, bar the United States.[1] It is for this reason that the UK has continued to adhere to the European Union’s targets for recovery and recycling of plastic, despite leaving the EU in 2020.[2] The EU’s broad objective is for member states to achieve what is known as a circular economy, wherein plastic is collected and reused indefinitely.

In order to achieve a circular economy, the UK sets recycling targets for both households and businesses. The legislation governing how local authorities and private citizens are expected to handle their waste differs significantly from legislation applied to their commercial counterparts. The UK maintains a blanket target of achieving a 65% municipal recycling rate by 2035.[3] This is despite the fact the majority of plastic discarded as household waste is created commercially.

This article considers whether the targets the UK sets are fair and proportionate in the context of the realities of both sectors. It will then question if public policy surrounding how recycling is conducted is sufficiently robust enough to achieve the government’s targets.


[1] Kara Law and others, 'The United States’ Contribution of Plastic Waste to Land and Ocean' (2020) 6(44) Science Advances.

[2] European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020.

[3] Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, 'Our Waste, Our Resources: a Strategy for England' (DEFRA, 18 December 2018) 67 <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/765914/resources-waste-strategy-dec-2018.pdf> accessed 29 July 2021.