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Plastic pollution


Our Plastics programme offers practical, evidence-based steps to tackle plastic pollution, so that everyone can be part of the solution.

The complexity, scale and urgency of the plastics challenge means it's something we must tackle together.


In the last few years we've all become more aware of plastic pollution, but did you know that most of the plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans comes from our rubbish in rivers? 

Earthwatch, in partnership with Plastic Oceans, have found the top ten most commonly found plastic items polluting our rivers and have come up with some suggestions about how you can help to make a difference.



Using less plastic is the biggest thing everyone can do to prevent waste and pollution, how many of these items do you use everyday?


The biggest source of plastic pollution in rivers, 6.9% of all used plastic bottles are littered a year in the UK.

Food wrappers

300 million crisp packets and 200 million sweet wrappers end up as litter in the UK every year.

Cigarette butts

In the UK an estimated 44 billion cigarettes are smoked each year, with over 14 billion ending up as litter.

Takeaway Containers

5.2 billion food containers are used each year of which 0.3 billion end up as litter.


Do you want to reduce your plastic footprint? Use this sheet to pledge how you will do it. Check out our Plastic Rivers action map for ideas. Then stick it on your fridge for a daily reminder of the difference you’re making to reducing the plastic pollution on your doorstep. 

Cotton Bud Sticks

1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds are used in England each year. 10% are flushed down the toilet.

Takeaway Cups

An estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups (30,000 tonnes) are used. 99% are currently not recycled.

Sanitary Products

Each day 3.4 billion wet wipes, 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million sanitary towels are flushed down the toilet.


We’re working with businesses to explore solutions to microplastics pollution

Read more

Your views on plastic

In April 2018, we asked what you think about the issues around plastic waste and pollution, and the actions you'd be interested in taking to tackle these issues. Hundreds of you responded to our survey and these are the results. 

View results

The problem with plastic


Since the 1950s, we've produced over eight billion tonnes of plastic. Most of it isn't recycled, and around 32% pollutes the natural environment.


Every year, eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the sea — the equivalent of dumping a rubbish truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute.


Our use of plastic is expected to double in the next 20 years. By 2050, the amount of plastic in the ocean could weigh more than all the fish.


A plastic bottle can last for 450 years at sea, eventually breaking down into microscopic pieces that never truly go away.

Smoking related litter

Smoking-related packaging makes up 1.1% of all litter items found in the freshwater environment.

Straws, cutlery and stirrers

4.7 billion straws, 316 million drinks stirrers and 16.5 billion single-use cutlery items are used each year. These items are often made from hard-to-recycle plastic.

Plastic bags

Single-use plastic carrier bag use has fallen 86% since the UK introduced the 5p tax in 2014, but the seven major supermarkets still issued over a billion bags in 2017.


The ocean ambassador

For Emily Penn, researching the damage plastic is doing to our oceans involves a 3,000-mile voyage. But making a difference doesn't have to be so challenging.

Read more

Contact us

We want to build collaboration and conversation across sectors to shape our investment and develop pioneering interventions. If you're interested in working with us, we'd love to hear from you.

Caroline Kluyver

Project Manager

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Ed Nemeshanyi

Corporate Development Manager

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Debbie Winton

Project Manager

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Steven Loiselle

Senior Research Manager

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Images: iStock/barbaraaaa, John Hunt, iStock/artisteer, iStock/vchal, eXXpedition


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