21 March 2019 by Elizabeth Slow

DS Smith warns of ‘overloaded’ recycling capacity

The UK’s kerbside recycling infrastructure is not set up to cope with packaging materials from a growth in online retail, packaging recycler and manufacturer DS Smith has claimed.

The company has today (21 March) published research suggesting that the UK will not meet a 65% municipal waste recycling target until 2048 – more than a decade after the EU Circular Economy Package’s 2035 goal.

DS Smith has today published report ‘The Tipping Point’ in conjunction with Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London

The warning comes in the company’s ‘Tipping Point’ report, compiled in conjunction with Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, which looks at consumer behaviour coupled with recycling trends.

DS Smith has advocated separate collections of paper and card based on the findings of the report. This echoes similar calls from the paper industry through the ‘Our Paper’ campaign, which is targeted at local authorities (see letsrecycle.com story).

Quality

Speaking to letsrecycle.com, Jochen Behr, head of recycling at DS Smith, emphasised that “quality is key” to driving up recycling rates.

“Waste separation is from my point of view, key,” he said. “With commingled it’s very difficult to separate the different streams. So, I think let’s make sure that we do it right when the consumers are there to separate.

“And then yes, make it easy for consumers around the labelling so they know how to recycle. “

Mr Behr also pointed out the need for a joined-up approach. “I think we need to make sure that we have holistic processes from the design of packaging which is designed for recyclability, to collection systems which made it convenient and easy for consumers to do the right collection, to segregating the different waste streams,” he said.

Capacity

The report claims that the UK faces a potential ‘tipping point’ caused by the constraint on recycling capacity for households using a commingled waste collection system and the rapid growth in e-commerce.

According to the report, 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.

Currently, 1.9 billion parcels – and the corresponding required packaging – are delivered directly to doors across the UK annually. Within 10 years the number of parcels will have grown by over 50%, numbers quoted in the report suggest.

However, DS Smith warns that recycling infrastructure was designed in a ‘pre-e-commerce era’ and official figures today expose a “creaking recycling infrastructure that is nearing overload”.

Analysis of figures contained within the report suggests that based on a total household recycling waste of 12.093 million tonnes from around 27.2 million households in 2017, if all households had a 240-litre wheelie bin of mixed dry recycling that was collected fortnightly, kerbside capacity would be 85% full.

Alongside an estimated 171,000 tonnes of additional packaging material to be recycled from a predicted growth in ecommerce “it’s not hard to see a future when materials for recycling could pile up in our homes or even on our streets,” the report concludes.

“The increase in packaging materials is not being accounted for within the current system, with recently released ONS figures showing that recycling rates for paper and cardboard packaging which is recovered or recycled, has fallen by 3.5% year-on-year,” DS Smith warns.

And, the company has also pointed to the range of council recycling systems in existence across the country as contributing to the problem.

“The lack of consistency, recycling labelling confusion, and the throw-away single-use culture in cities are some of the key triggers leading to the low rate,” it says.

Confusion

The report also provides insight on consumer attitudes towards recycling which DS Smith says point towards the need to tackle “consumer confusion and scepticism”.

“We’re really passionate about this and I think it’s a fantastic time to contribute to the conversations.”


Jochen Behr
DS Smith

A YouGov poll commissioned by DS Smith has suggested nearly half (49%) of UK adults admitted they ‘could do more’ recycling than they do currently. While only 18% of UK adults surveyed say they are very well informed about what they can recycle in their street.

Mr Behr added that 2019 presents a “golden opportunity” to focus on action. “We’re really passionate about this and I think it’s a fantastic time to contribute to the conversations. I think the UK at the moment is in the unique situation to make changes to our systems and we should just use the opportunity that presents itself.”

Dr Jamie Brassett, programme research director, Central Saint Martins, UAL said: “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.”

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