The European Commission has set 65% recycling targets for member nations by 2035 - but a report by DS Smith and University of the Arts London says the UK won't hit this until 2048 at the current rate
The UK will fall short of its 2035 recycling goals by more than a decade, according to a new report by packaging firm DS Smith.
Targets set by the European Commission four years ago state that at least 65% of municipal waste should be recycled by 2035 – a goal the company believes the UK won’t hit until 2048.
For Britain to hit the EU target on time, the Tipping Point report – which also involved research by University of the Arts London (UAL) – says at least 24 million extra tonnes of materials from households would need to be recycled from now until 2035.
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.”
The targets were set out as part of the European Commission’s implementation of the circular economy action plan set out in 2015.
The UK government had initially opposed the targets, before reversing that decision in 2018.
The rise of online shopping and its impact on packaging
One of the challenges the Tipping Point report outlines is the rise of e-commerce across the country.
According to research conducted by the Office of National Statistics, the UK has the third largest consumer online marketplace in the world, making up around 18% of all retail sales.
The report says this has left the recycling infrastructure, designed before the rise of the e-commerce, nearing overload.
A prediction from DS Smith, based on passport data from market researcher Euromonitor, says the number of parcels will increase by more than 50% over the next ten years, putting more pressure on the system.
What do consumers think about recycling rates?
As part of the report’s research, DS Smith commissioned a survey from polling firm YouGov, to get an understanding of the attitudes towards recycling in the UK.
Of the 2,170 people that were interviewed, 65% said they recycled more than they did five years ago, but 49% admitted they could do more.
Highlighted in the research from YouGov was the confusion on what can and can’t be recycled.
Only 18% of those surveyed said they’re well informed about what they can recycle, with 34% saying that clearer labelling on products would encourage them to do more.
One of the reasons cited for causing the confusion is that there are more than 300 local authorities in England alone, with many councils having a different recycling system.
But the UK government will this year hold a consultation on a plan to standardise waste management for certain “dry recyclable materials”.
Under-investment in the waste system
The report also highlighted what was described as “chronic under-investment in the UK’s waste management system over the past decade”.
The research included a 2018 analysis conducted by BBC News.
It found that “real terms” spending on recycling in the UK in 2016-17 was only marginally better than it was in 2010-11.
Between 2010-11 and 2013-14, money invested into these systems increased by £70m to £630m.
After this period, spending dropped by £61m to £569m in 2016-17.
DS Smith believes this lack of investment is one of the reasons why 173 of the 350 councils had lower recycling rates 2016-17 compared to 2011-12.
DS Smith’s recycling recommendations
In a list of recommendations, the firm called on the UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility to carry out an economic analysis on the benefits and costs of implementing a circular economy over the next 25 years.
DS Smith also believes the packaging and collection infrastructure should be standardised, allowing for labelling that provides sufficient information on recycling.
Mr Behr believes 2019 presents a “golden opportunity to focus on action” in solving the waste management issues faced by the UK.
He said: “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.”
Dr Jamie Brassett, programme research director at UAL college Central Saint Martins, added: “This report raises critical challenges when it comes to implementing a pathway towards efficient recycling and waste management systems.”