Resource Use

UK recycling infrastructure struggles to cope

Recycling machinery
Recycling machinery
The UK will not be able to meet its 2035 recycling targets, according to a new report from packaging producer DS Smith.

The report, conducted in partnership with Central Saint Martins college in London and published on 21 March, looks at the current state of recycling in the UK and asks the question: ‘Is pressure on our recycling system reaching a ‘tipping point’, and if so, what can we do?’

The UK is required to achieve a recycling rate of 65 per cent by 2035, in line with the EU’s Circular Economy Package (CEP), a set of measures focused on reducing waste to a minimum across Europe. Despite Brexit, the UK Government has said it remains committed to achieving the CEP targets, which also include specific recycling targets for different materials, as well as introducing separate organic waste collections by the end of 2023 and sending less than 10 per cent of total municipal waste generated to landfill by 2035.

In 2017, the UK recycling rate for waste from households (WfH) was 45.7 per cent, an increase of only 0.5 per cent on the previous year. While Wales has gone from strength to strength in its own fight against waste, achieving 57.6 per cent recycling in 2017 – or 62.7 per cent in 2017/18, according to its own figures – the UK as a whole is being dragged down by poor recycling rates in other countries, especially England, which has stagnated around the mid-forties for a number of years.

In its ‘Tipping Point’ report, DS Smith states that not only will the UK fall short of the 65 per cent target, it will do so by over a decade – if current trends continue, we will not reach 65 per cent until 2048. The UK is also far behind meeting its upcoming interim target of 50 per cent by 2020.

DS Smith's paper mill in Kent
DS Smith's paper mill in Kent

What is holding the UK back?

The report sets out some of the concerns DS Smith has about the future of UK recycling, as well as some recommendations for how the country might change its fortunes to meet the EU targets.

Lack of investment in recycling is a key problem identified in the report, which points out that the total amount of money budgeted by councils to spend on recycling services has dropped from £630 million in 2013/14 to £569 million in 2016/17. Continued austerity means that local authorities, especially in England, are often forced to make waste treatment choices based on money rather than quality.

In addition, waste incineration is set to overtake recycling rates, according to a Green Party report – and some have argued that we are set for overcapacity, meaning there will be more energy from waste (EfW) plants than waste to fill them. This could result in material that could have been recycled being diverted into incineration, just in order to keep these plants going.

Pull factors to encourage recycling are also struggling, with the market for secondary materials in need of stimulation. The report states: ‘A recent plastics Call for Evidence by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer showed the lack of end markets for recycled plastic material, or a lack of requirement to use recycled content, as one of the main barriers to increased investment in recycling infrastructure.’

Consumer confusion

Consumer behaviour is having an impact on recycling rates, the report states, pointing out the growth in online shopping and associated boom in the delivery of packages. The UK is the third largest B2C (business to consumer) e-commerce market in the world, with 18 per cent of retail sales made online and 1.9 billion parcels delivered annually.

Mixed plastic and paper packaging
Confusion about what can and can't be recycled is holding recycling rates back
As a result, it is claimed, the UK’s recycling infrastructure, ‘designed in a pre-e-commerce era’, is finding it hard to cope with an influx of more and more packaging materials.

While consumers have a growing desire to recycle and do what’s best for the environment, many are still confused about what to do with different items. A YouGov survey commissioned by DS Smith revealed that only 18 per cent of adults felt well-informed about recycling, while 34 per cent said they would like to see clearer labelling on products and packaging.

Consumer confusion could be linked to the variety of different kerbside recycling systems that are available, with some councils collecting items that others don’t, and some offering multiple bins for different items and others collecting recyclables in one bin (a co-mingled system). One in five respondents to DS Smith’s survey said they would like more recycling bins.

A tipping point?

With these factors in mind, the report suggests that we could be on the way to a ‘tipping point’ whereby the amount of recyclable material outweighs the capacity of our recycling infrastructure: ‘It’s not hard to see a future when materials for recycling could pile up in our homes or even on our streets.’

Jochen Behr, Head of Recycling at DS Smith, said: “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.”


DS Smith has made five suggestions as to how the UK could increase its recycling rate:

  1. A dedicated recycling minister to focus on the issue in government;
  2. Statutory recycling targets coordinated across all the UK nations, at national and local levels;
  3. Prioritise waste separation with statutory guidance on separate collections, backed by an increase in funding;
  4. Universal labelling across packaging and bins to better inform consumers; and
  5. Put the circular economy at the heart of the Budget, with an economic analysis of the benefits and costs of adopting a circular economy model over the next 25 years.

On the back of its Resources and Waste Strategy, the government has launched a number of consultations covering some of the topics discussed in DS Smith’s report.

The consultations cover: the consistency of household recycling, including a separate food waste collection for all households; extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging producers to cover the full net costs of collecting and recycling their products; a deposit return scheme for drinks containers; and a plastics tax that would incentivise the use of recycled material.

The outcome of these consultations, which will conclude on 12 and 13 May 2019, could bring about a radical transformation of the UK’s waste and recycling sectors, though many in the industry have questioned the need for yet more discussion in place of much-needed action.

Behr concluded: “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.”

The full ‘Tipping Point’ report can be downloaded on the DS Smith website

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