UK at recycling “tipping point”, warns DS Smith

NEW research from packaging provider DS Smith is warning that the UK is at a recycling “tipping point” and looks to fall short of its 2035 recycling targets by more than a decade.

The Tipping Point report, published in conjunction with Central Saint Martins, UAL, outlines new consumer behaviours which are said to be compounding the recycling challenges facing the UK. This includes the “rapid” adoption of e-commerce and therefore the exponential growth in the delivery of packages.

The UK is reported to be the third largest B2C e-commerce market in the world, with around 18% of all retail sales now made online. 1.9 billion parcels, and corresponding packaging, are being delivered across the UK annually and, according to DS Smith, this number of parcels will rise by 50% within 10 years.

The report notes that this increase in packaging materials is “not being accounted for within the current recycling system”. Recently released ONS figures show that recycling rates for paper and cardboard packaging that is recovered or recycled has fallen by 3.5% year-on-year. This is said to be exacerbated by “chronic” underinvestment in the UK’s waste management system, which has declined by 10% over the past decade, DS Smith said.

Jochen Behr, head of recycling at DS Smith commented, “The Tipping Point report makes for uncomfortable reading and our research demonstrates just how close our bins are to overflowing. We see a system that doesn’t consider the volume of today’s recycling, infrastructure which could be close to breakdown and a number of local authorities looking to adopt the cheapest waste treatment rather than improving the quality of collected dry recyclables. It creates a compelling case for joined-up, systemic change on how the UK deals with waste and recyclables.”

A YouGov poll commissioned by DS Smith, which is included in the Tipping Point report, revealed:

  • Nearly half (49%) of UK adults admitted they ‘could do more’ recycling than they do currently
  • Only 18% of UK adults surveyed say they are very well informed about what they can recycle in their street
  • When asked which schemes ‘would be most likely’ to encourage UK adults to recycle more, a third (34%) cited if there was clearer labelling on products and packaging
  • The research showed that 41% of adults think that on average 25% of waste produced in residential households across the UK is recycled
  • More than a third (37%) said they feared the materials they recycle is likely to end up in landfill or incineration sites.

Behr added, “It is particularly disappointing that in the year since Blue Planet 2, a moment that has awoken public desire to reduce waste and recycle more, the UK is set to miss both its short-term and long-term goals. This can only be further impacted by the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.

“Therefore, 2019 presents a golden opportunity to focus on action. By pushing forward with new legislation, creating further opportunities for industry innovation, and leveraging rising consumer enthusiasm, we can kick start a revolution to keep resources in use through recycling and reduce the amount of waste we create.”

Dr Jamie Brassett, programme research director, Central Saint Martins, UAL added, “Critically examining recycling, sustainability, resilience and circular economy have been important aspects of the MA Innovation Management Course since it began. This report raises critical challenges when it comes to implementing a pathway towards efficient recycling and waste management systems.”

DS Smith is now calling for further action from UK government, industry and the general public to “stimulate better recycling in the UK and achieve a step change”.

DS Smith’s five key policy asks:

  1. Appoint a dedicated recycling minister: The severity of the potential consequences for the UK of inaction on recycling warrant the appointment of a specific Minister for Recycling and Waste with cross-departmental responsibility.
  2. Statutory recycling targets: As the UK leaves the European Union, all stakeholders should take this opportunity to coordinate and implement minimum UK-wide recycling targets at national and local authority levels.
  3. Prioritise waste separation:The UK should adopt statutory guidance on separate collections, backed by an increase in funding.
  4. Apply universal labelling: All packaging and collection bins should have a standardised recycling label that sufficiently informs consumers.
  5. Put the circular economy at the heart of the Budget: The Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) should carry out an economic analysis of the benefits and costs of adopting a circular economy model over the next 25 years.

DS Smith also reaffirmed its commitment to achieve 100% reusable or recyclable packaging by 2025 and its intention to participate in new trials to solve how the UK collects and processes rising quantities of e-commerce packaging and hard to recycle products.