UK to fall short of its 2035 recycling target by more than a decade

DS Smith
Workers sorting papers on factory assembly line for recycling at recycling plant. Image: DS Smith

Packaging provider DS Smith has published new research which shows that the UK will fall short of its 2035 recycling targets by more than a decade. 

This research is in conjunction with Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. 


The Tipping Point report outlines new consumer behaviours which are compounding the recycling challenges that the UK is facing, including the adoption of e-commerce, and the growth in the delivery of packages. 

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According to DS Smith, the UK is now the third biggest B2C e-commerce market globally, with around 18% of all retail sales in the UK now purchased online.  This means that 1.9 billion parcels, and the required packaging for this, are delivered directly to the customer’s door annually. It believes that in 10 years, the number of parcels will have grown by over 50%. 

However, DS Smith said that the increase in packaging materials is not being accounted for within the current system, as the infrastructure was designed in a pre-ecommerce period. ONS figures show that recycling rates for paper and cardboard packaging which is recovered or recycled has declined by 3.5% year-on-year.  

This is made worse by the lack of investment in the UK’s waste management system over the past decade, said the company. The total amount spent has dropped from £630 million in 2013-14 to £569 million in 2016-17. This has led to lower recycling rates in 173 of the 350 councils in England in 2016-17, compared to 2011-12.  

DS Smith head of recycling Jochen Behr 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 report also provides new insight on consumer attitudes towards recycling which point towards the need to tackle consumer confusion. A YouGov poll commissioned by DS Smith found:  

  • Nearly half (49%) of UK adults said they ‘could do more’ recycling  
  • Only 18% of adults surveyed said 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, 34% said clearer labelling on products and packaging  
  • 41% of adults think that on average 25% of waste produced in households across the UK is recycled 
  • More than a third (37%) said they feared the materials they recycle are likely to end up in landfill or incinerated.  

Jochen 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.” 

Central Saint Martins programme research director Jamie Brassett said: “Critically examining recycling, sustainability, resilience and circular economy have been important aspects of the MA Innovation Management Course since it began. This report raises critical challenges when it comes to implementing a pathway towards efficient recycling and waste management systems.” 

DS Smith is calling for Government, industry and the public to work together to generate better recycling in the UK. The firm’s five key policy asks are: 

  • Appoint a dedicated recycling minister 
  • Statutory recycling targets as the UK leaves the EU 
  • Prioritise waste separation 
  • Apply universal labelling that sufficiently informs consumers 
  • Put the circular economy at the centre of the Budget. 

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