Published: 09:28, 21 March 2019
| Updated: 09:30, 21 March 2019
The UK is set to miss recycling targets by more than a decade, a major new survey has revealed - fuelled by our love of online shopping.
The research, published by packaging firm DS Smith, based at Kemsley Mill, near Sittingbourne, shows the UK will massively miss targets it has set for 2035.
It was conducted in conjunction with Central Saint Martins at the University of the Arts London.
The Tipping Point report outlines new consumer behaviours which are compounding the recycling challenges the UK is facing, including the rapid adoption of e-commerce and therefore the exponential growth in the delivery of packages.
The UK is now the third largest B2C (business to consumer) e-commerce market in the world, with around 18% of all retail sales in the UK now made online.
That means 1.9 billion parcels – and the corresponding required packaging – are currently delivered directly to doors across the UK annually.
And forecasts suggest that number will have grown by over 50% in the next 10 years.
However, the recycling infrastructure was designed before the dawning of the e-commerce era and the report says official figures expose a "creaking recycling infrastructure that is nearing overload".
The increase in packaging materials, says the report, is not being accounted for within the current system, with recently released ONS figures showing that recycling rates for paper and cardboard packaging which is recovered or recycled, has fallen by 3.5% year-on-year.
As a result, the UK currently sits 16th among developed nations in terms of its overall recycling figures.
Authors of the survey say the situation has been exacerbated by a "chronic under-investment" in the UK's waste management system, which has seen a 10% dip in the last 10 years.
The report says the total amount spent has dropped from £630 million in 2013-14 to £569m in 2016-17 which has led to lower recycling rates in 173 of the 350 councils in England in 2016-17, compared to 2011-12.
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.”
Confusion for consumers is also added into the mix, with the 300 different council recycling systems across England muddying minds.
To further compound the situation, the report provides new insight on consumer attitudes towards recycling which point towards the need to tackle consumer confusion and scepticism.
A YouGov poll commissioned by DS Smith reveals:
Nearly half (49%) of UK adults admitted they ‘could do more’ recycling than they do currently.
Only 18% of UK adults surveyed say they are very well informed about what they can recycle in their street.
When asked which schemes ‘would be most likely’ to encourage UK adults to recycle more, a third (34%) cited if there was clearer labelling on products and packaging.
The research showed that 41% of adults think that on average 25% of waste produced in residential households across the UK is recycled.
More than a third (37%) said they feared the materials they recycle is likely to end up in landfill or incineration sites.
Mr Behr added: “It is particularly disappointing that in the year since Blue Planet 2, a moment that has awoken public desire to reduce waste and recycle more, the UK is set to miss both its short-term and long-term goals. This can only be further impacted by the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
“Therefore, 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.”
DS Smith is now calling for fovernment, industry and the general public to work together to stimulate better recycling in the UK and achieve a step change in our capability as a society to do more while using less.