Resource Use

UK Recycling Policy is causing faltering recycling rates

Michael Orye, Managing Director for Recycling at DS Smith, explains what the future holds for paper and card recycling rates, and what is required to bring them back on track.

paper and card recycling ratesThe sustainability of paper and cardboard packaging may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about building a circular economy. But as the need for businesses to move away from single-use and hard-to-recycle plastic becomes more urgent and the appetite for paper and cardboard packaging grows, it’s something we can’t ignore.

Paper is a hugely circular material: data from industry body FEFCO shows that corrugated fibres can be recycled up to 25 times without any significant loss in quality. Add that to the fact that paper has some of the highest recycling rates of any packaging material, and it seems clear that paper is the best choice for meeting this demand in a sustainable way.

However, the full benefits of paper’s circularity are not being realised in the UK. While still widely recycled, recycling rates for paper and cardboard packaging in Britain are currently falling at an alarming rate.

Research from DS Smith’s latest report, Wasted Paper: A Path to Better Recycling, shows that the UK is lagging behind European nations, ranking 25th of 30 for its paper and cardboard packaging recycling rate. In 2020, just 74 per cent of paper and cardboard packaging was recycled, compared to the European average of 82 per cent. DS Smith’s projections show that if this rate continues on its downward trajectory, it could reach just 56 per cent - meaning that 17.3 million tonnes of packaging, worth £2.8 billion, will end up in landfill or incineration in the UK by 2030. That’s the equivalent of two in five pieces of paper and cardboard.

Target UK recycling rates

Prior modelling by DS Smith also shows that the UK is on track to miss its long-term recycling target by up to 13 years, as set by DEFRA. We have already missed our 2020 target of 50 per cent and are set to miss both the 2025 (55 per cent) and 2030 (65 per cent) targets. DEFRA has recently launched its Simpler Recycling measures, but these are a backwards step. Evidence shows that the co-mingling of waste results in increased contamination compared to a source-segregated model. The problem is only growing, as our estimates suggest that increasing consumer demand will generate 6.5 million tonnes of paper and cardboard packaging waste every single year in the UK by the end of this decade.

As a business that operates on a circular model for paper-based packaging, we know first-hand the difference that well-functioning recycling systems can make. Not only can they keep resources in use for longer, but they also help reduce costs of raw materials, and crucially, limit the environmental impact of packaging production. On the flipside, poor recycling collection and consumer participation can have a hugely damaging effect – as we’re already seeing through declining rates.

A lack of consistency in recycling systems, including a lack of source segregation – which means separating paper and card at consumers’ homes and in on-the-go bins – is contributing to this decline. Trust in recycling systems is also poor, as research conducted by DS Smith shows that just 66 per cent of Brits are confident that the paper and cardboard packaging waste they put in their bins is recycled correctly by the authorities.

A focus on recycling rates

There are measures we can, and must urgently, take to help reverse the trend. The best way to cement a more circular, sustainable packaging system would be by reaching a 90 per cent recycling rate by 2030, as proposed by the 4evergreen Alliance. This would enable us to recycle around an extra million tonnes of paper and cardboard packaging every year from 2030, creating a more circular economy for the UK.

Reaching this goal requires urgent change and focus from policymakers. To realise this opportunity and further boost recycling rates, we need legislators in the UK to work closely with industry and consumers to implement four key changes:

  • Source segregation (meaning paper and card are separated from other materials at consumers’ homes and in on-the-go bins);
  • Consistency of recycling systems at both a national level and across local authorities;
  • Standardised labelling and greater education for consumers;
  • Clearer legislation to allow businesses to more confidently invest in recycling.

There is a will from consumers to improve recycling rates, and the industry is ready to implement strong sustainable systems. Now, we need clarity, consistency and will from legislators to create change, reverse our recycling rates and build a sustainable future for packaging.

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