DS Smith study says UK recycling “at tipping point”

Richard Stuart-Turner
Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Packaging giant DS Smith has released new research that says the UK will fall short of its 2035 recycling targets by more than a decade.

Carried out in conjunction with Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, the company’s report, The Tipping Point, outlines new consumer behaviours that are compounding the recycling challenges the UK is facing, including the rapid adoption of e-commerce and therefore the exponential growth in the delivery of packages.

The UK is now the third largest B2C e-commerce market in the world, with around 18% of all retail sales in the UK now made online. 1.9 billion parcels – and the corresponding required packaging – are currently delivered directly to doors across the UK annually.

These figures will have grown by more than 50% within 10 years, based on DS Smith’s calculations using Euromonitor Passport data.

But the company said the UK’s recycling infrastructure was designed in a pre-e-commerce era and that its findings “expose a creaking recycling infrastructure that is nearing overload”.

It said the increase in packaging materials is not being accounted for within the current system and that this is further exacerbated by a “chronic under-investment” in the UK’s waste management system over the past decade, down 10% from £630m spent in 2013-14 to £569m in 2016-17.

This has led to lower recycling rates in 173 of the 350 councils in England in 2016-17, compared to 2011-12.

DS Smith also pointed to “a lack of consistency among the near-300 different council recycling systems across England, recycling labelling confusion, and the throw-away single-use culture in cities”.

The company said that the UK should adopt “a holistic, UK-wide recycling system” to manage the extra e-commerce packaging volume over the next decade.

“Defra’s Resources & Waste Strategy shows good signs of intention from the government to deliver change and inspire a more resource-efficient future,” said DS Smith head of government & community affairs Peter Clayson.

“Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging Waste is set to inject new funds into the recycling system – the danger is it will just replace existing funds that are already being provided.

“As the key details on how the monies will be raised and governed are still being consulted on and the legislation has yet to be drawn up (let alone enforced), it is imperative that good intentions don’t go to waste and a genuinely joined-up system that rewards good design and drives demand for recyclable materials is created.

“We believe that government, industry and the general public must work together to stimulate better recycling in the UK and achieve a step change in our capability as a society to do more while using less.”

He added the company believes that any move to improve the consistency of recycling collections “must also include a requirement for separate paper and card collections, alongside separate food waste collections”.

“This will minimise unnecessary contamination of the growing household paper stream and provide sufficient quality for reprocessing.”

The report recommended appointing a dedicated recycling minister, implementing statutory recycling targets at national and local authority levels, prioritising waste separation, applying universal labelling on all packaging and collection bins, and putting the circular economy at the heart of the Budget.

Last year DS Smith 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, such as coffee cups.

Last month the company confirmed the sale of its plastics division to US private equity firm Olympus Partners in a deal worth nearly £450m.

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