Trashed! Billions to be lost in recycling crisis, says DS Smith boss

Trashed! Billions are set to be lost in our recycling crisis, says DS Smith chief exec MILES ROBERTS

Britain is heading towards a full-blown recycling crisis which if left unchecked could cost the economy billions of pounds and do untold damage to the environment.

The pandemic and explosion in online home shopping have driven huge shifts in consumer behaviour and the UK’s creaking recycling infrastructure can no longer cope with the sheer amount of packaging being thrown away.

With the UK dominating the e-commerce market after China and the US, parcel volumes are at a record high with almost 3bn sent and received across the country last year.

The pandemic and explosion in online home shopping means the UK’s creaking recycling infrastructure can no longer cope with the sheer amount of packaging being thrown away

But despite more people willing to recycle than ever before, recycling rates for paper and cardboard packaging have dropped sharply from a peak of nearly 80 per cent in 2017 to just 65 per cent in 2020.

If the UK was able to recycle this material and turn it into new packaging papers, it would be worth billions to the economy – up to £1billion last year alone. 

Instead, we are literally throwing away green jobs and green investment at a time when we should be supporting our national sustainability and climate change efforts.

As a priority, we need a simpler, standardised system of recycling with separate household waste collections for paper and card at the very heart of it.

With record numbers enjoying the convenience of online home deliveries, this represents a common-sense approach which would boost the quality and quantity of our recycling and has worked well for many years in leading recycling nations such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.

In contrast, there are up to 300 different council recycling schemes in England with a huge variety of different kerbside recycling arrangements.

The Government recognises this is a problem and is seeking industry views on the best way forward, but it’s critical this achieves a positive outcome otherwise we risk our recycling rates falling further behind.

As a global leader in packaging, and Europe’s largest recycler of paper and cardboard, we are acutely aware of the huge responsibilities we face in protecting the environment and reducing waste and pollution.

We make 20bn boxes a year for companies of all sizes – from start-ups to many of the world’s biggest brands – and have committed to manufacturing 100 per cent recyclable packaging by 2023.

But we can only do this efficiently if we all manage resources more effectively and make it as easy as possible for people to recycle their waste properly in their home.

However, despite some early successes, the UK’s overall recycling rates for household waste have remained stubbornly flat for years.

In fact, we burnt more waste than we recycled in England in 2019 – 11.6m tonnes incinerated, just 10.9m tonnes recycled – driving up greenhouse gases and pushing the UK’s climate goals further out of reach.

The eyes of the world will be on the UK when we host COP26 in Glasgow in November. 

If we are to avoid overflowing bins, meet our net zero climate targets and truly build back better, it will take a combined effort to get to grips with our recycling infrastructure.

Failure to act will have serious economic and environmental consequences for generations to come.