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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Modelling plastic packaging flow in the UK: Current practices and future opportunities for local authorities

The recycling rate of consumer plastic packaging in the UK is estimated to be 30-34%. This in comparison to the overall plastic packaging recycling rate of 47% highlights a major challenge for consumer plastic waste management in the UK. Responsibility for collecting consumer packaging waste in the UK lies with Local Authorities (LAs), the performance of which is determined by the specific waste schemes they run. Thus, the starting point for understanding the environmental impacts of plastic packaging disposal is to accurately map the consumer plastic packaging across different LAs to identify the biggest opportunities where actions can be directed to deliver the largest impact.

In response, this study attempts to utilise a material flow analysis (MFA) of plastic packaging at LA level: tracing the quantity of plastics collected by each council and their chosen mode of disposal. The study combines data from WasteDataFlow and literature on compositional analysis of municipal waste to compute the MFA. The MFA estimates the quantity of consumer plastic packaging collected in the UK to be ~ 1968.5 kt of which only 578.7 kt were recycled, and 1015 kt were either landfilled or incinerated. The MFA also highlights significant differences in the recycling rates of plastic packaging collected for different LAs. Clustering of LA MFA results in relation to different regions of the UK also highlight differences in the choice of disposal methods. The results of the MFA were then analysed in combination with data on the waste collection schemes of LAs to explain the findings of the MFA.

The study identified that low material coverage, low consumer participation especially amongst young adults, and provision of appropriate collection services (type of bin and collection frequency) affect the amount of plastic packaging collected at kerbside. An estimated 643.7 kt of plastic packaging were not covered by LA schemes highlighting the need for increasing material coverage at kerbside whilst also increasing consumer participation. A worrying trend is the UK’s continuing overreliance on incineration for treating plastic packaging in residual waste, with 96% of new residual waste management capacity being incineration based. While the UK is set to introduce encouraging policies to promote recycling and circular business models, the current state of policies and infrastructure with respect to residual waste disposal which promotes incineration does not reflect the urgency in terms of decarbonisation.


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.