Thrown away! Billions lost in recycling crisis, says DS Smith boss

Thrown away! Billions are lost in our recycling crisis, says DS Smith chief executive MILES ROBERTS


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Britain is heading for a full-blown recycling crisis that, if left unchecked, could cost the economy billions of pounds and cause untold damage to the environment.

The pandemic and explosion of online home shopping has led to massive shifts in consumer behaviour, and the UK’s creaky recycling infrastructure can no longer handle 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 an all-time high with nearly 3 billion shipped and received across the country last year.

The pandemic and explosion in online home shopping means the UK's creaky recycling infrastructure can no longer cope with the massive amount of packaging thrown away

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

But despite more people than ever willing to recycle, the recycling rate for paper and cardboard packaging has plummeted from a peak of nearly 80 percent in 2017 to just 65 percent in 2020.

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

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

Our priority is a simpler, standardized recycling system with separate collection of household waste for paper and cardboard at the core.

With record numbers enjoying the convenience of online home delivery, this is a common sense approach that would improve the quality and quantity of our recycling and has worked well for years in leading recycling countries such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.

By contrast, there are up to 300 different municipal recycling schemes in England with a huge variety of different curbside recycling schemes.

The government recognizes that this is a problem and is seeking industry opinion on the best way forward, but it is critical that this produces a positive outcome or we risk falling further behind our recycling rates.

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

We make 20 billion boxes a year for companies of all sizes – from start-ups to many of the world’s biggest brands – and are committed to producing 100 percent recyclable packaging by 2023.

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

Despite some early successes, overall recycling rates of household waste in the UK have remained stubbornly stable for years.

In fact, we incinerated more waste than we recycled in England in 2019 – incinerated 11.6 million tonnes, recycled just 10.9 million tonnes – increasing greenhouse gas emissions and pushing the UK’s climate targets further out of reach.

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

If we want to avoid overcrowded bins, achieve our net-zero climate targets and really rebuild better, it will take a concerted effort to get to grips with our recycling infrastructure.

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

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