UK recycling rates approach a ‘tipping point’

UK recycling rates approach a ‘tipping point’

DS Smith and Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London release a study on the state of U.K. recycling rates in 2019.


"The Tipping Point," a new study released by DS Smith, Caerphilly, Wales, and Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, reveals that the United Kingdom will fall short of its 2035 recycling targets by more than a decade. The international packaging provider and university wanted to outline new consumer behaviors that are compounding the recycling challenges the U.K. is facing, including the rapid adoption of e-commerce and the exponential growth in the delivery of packages. 

According to DS Smith, the U.K. is now the third largest business-to-consumer e-commerce market in the world, with around 18 percent of all retail sales in the U.K. now made online. The company reports that about 1.9 billion packages are currently delivered directly to homes in the U.K. annually. 

However, the recycling infrastructure was designed before the e-commerce era, DS Smith reports. The increase in packaging materials is not being accounted for within the current system, with recently released figures showing recycling rates for paper and cardboard packaging has fallen by about 3.5 percent year over year. 

Additionally, the U.K.’s investment in its waste management system has declined by about 10 percent in the past decade, according to DS Smith’s research. The total amount spent has dropped from £630 million (more than $822 million) in 2013 to 2014 to £569 million (more than $742 million) in 2016 to 2017. 

“'The Tipping Point' report makes for uncomfortable reading and our research demonstrates just how close our bins are to overflowing,” says Jochen Behr, head of recycling at DS Smith. “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 U.K. deals with waste and recyclables.”

"The Tipping Point" report includes insight on consumer attitudes toward recycling, which points toward the need to tackle consumer confusion and skepticism. A poll commissioned by DS Smith reveals that:

  • Nearly half of U.K. adults admitted they “could do more” recycling than they do currently.
  • Only 18 percent of U.K. adults surveyed say they are very well informed about what they can recycle. 
  • When asked which schemes “would be most likely” to encourage U.K. adults to recycle more, a third cited if there was clearer labeling on products and packaging.
  • The research showed that 41 percent of adults think that on average 25 percent of waste produced in residential households across the U.K. is recycled.
  • More than a third said they feared the materials they recycle is likely to end up in landfill or incineration sites.

Behr adds, “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 U.K. 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.”

DS Smith offers some policy suggestions in "The Tipping Point" report, including appointing a dedicated recycling minister in the U.K., prioritizing waste separation, adding statutory recycling targets and applying universal labeling on bins. The full report is available to download.