The weight of 3.3 million penguins in plastic waste – UK’s Christmas gift to the environment

UK environment and animal welfare charities, including WDC are calling on businesses to slash wasteful packaging, and governments across the four nations to commit to a raft of strong measures to tackle plastic pollution in the New Year.

The calls, which also include asking the public to help cut the plague of plastic pollution this Christmas by using less and recycling more, come as new estimates emerge on the startling scale of plastic and other waste this Christmas.

  • Around 114,000 tonnes of plastic packaging will be thrown away and not recycled in the UK this Christmas – which is more than the weight of 3.3million Emperor penguins2
  • Around 88 square km of wrapping paper are likely to be used in the UK this year – that’s enough to cover either Brighton and Hove, Coventry, Newport, Preston, Reading, Sunderland or Swansea3
  • The UK uses a staggering 300,000 tonnes of card packaging at Christmas (Source WRAP) –the equivalent weight of 2 million Reindeer4
  • The total waste created in the UK this Christmas from food and drink, packaging, wrapping paper, cards, Christmas trees and other rubbish, is likely to exceed 5 million tonnes - equivalent to around 450,000 double decker buses5

Plastic waste at Christmas
Plastic waste at Christmas

Plastic waste is of particular concern as it degrades so slowly and is having such a devastating impact on the ocean. Christmas is the most wasteful time of year, with high proportions of waste which could be recycled being thrown in the bin instead.  Plastics, foil and aerosols are the recyclables most likely to evade the recycling bin and almost two thirds of the UK population say uncertainty over what can be recycled leads them to put items in the waste bin.6

The UK Government is being urged to take the following actions to both discourage companies and individuals from using throwaway plastic and incentivise sustainable alternatives:

  • Set charges on single-use plastics at a level which will achieve real change
  • Allocate revenues generated by any plastic charges to fund environmental conservation and improvements
  • Provide incentives to manufacturers to reduce single-use packaging and encourage environmentally-friendly alternatives
  • Phase-out the most harmful plastics that are most difficult to recycle
  • Sainsbury’s, in partnership with the Forest Stewardship Council UK, offer customers the opportunity to recycle their old Christmas cards, wrapping paper and Christmas lights in store from Boxing Day until 8 January 2018

For more information on the problem of plastic and how you can help go to WDC’s NotWhaleFood site. Be a plastic hero!


The charities supporting these calls are: A Rocha UK, Born Free Foundation, Environmental Investigation Agency, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Humane Society International-UK, IFAW, Institute of Fisheries Management, ORCA, National Trust, Plantlife, The Rivers Trust, RSPCA, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, The Wildlife Trusts, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, WWF-UK, Zoological Society of London.

1. The UK created 1,845,966 tonnes of plastic packaging waste in 2004 ( table 2) with 344,317 tonnes recovered or recycled - 18.65% (table 7). In 2014 (the most recent statistics available - table 7.1) there were 2,200,000 tonnes, with 842,000 recovered or recycled – 37.9%). showed 125,000 tonnes of UK plastic waste that Christmas. Annual plastic waste increased 19.2% 2004 - 2014. Assuming the same increase in Christmas waste, and factoring in recycling rates: 125,000/(100-18.65)= 1,536.57 x119.2=183,159.19/100 = 1,831.59 x(100-37.9) = 113,742 tonnes. Emperor penguins weigh between 50-100lb (). Taking 75lb as the average, and 2204.62lbs per tonne, this equates to 3,343,446 Emperor Penguins.

2. 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 with 2,539,206 tonnes recycled or recovered 67.6%. (DEFRA table 7). In 2014 the equivalent figures were 4,749,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard waste, with 3,470,000 recovered or recycled – 73.1% (DEFRA table 7.1). Annual paper waste increased by 27.5% 2004-2014. Assuming a similar increase in wrapping paper waste, even factoring in increased overall recycling rates, around 88 sq km of wrapping paper could be used this year. See Wikipedia for UK cities of a similar size.

3. Male Reindeer weigh 200–460 lb (World Animal Foundation), taking 330lb as the average and 2204.62lbs per tonne, 300,000 of card packaging equates to 2,004,200 Reindeer.

4. DEFRA estimated in 2004 that Christmas waste was equivalent to the weight of 400,000 double decker buses. Packaging waste in the UK annually has increased from 10,230,001 in 2004 (DEFRA, table 2) to 11,436,000 tonnes in 2014 (the most recent figures available from DEFRA, table 7.1). This is an increase of almost 12%. Assuming this is reflected across all types of waste, Christmas waste in the UK could now weigh the equivalent of 448,000 double decker buses.

5. WRAP 2017 recycling tracker

6. Annual plastic waste increased 19.2% 2004 - 2014. In 2004 18.65%of plastic waste was recovered/recycled (DEFRA table 7). In 2014 37.9% was recovered/recycled (DEFRA statistics available - table 7.1).