DS Smith’s director of strategy and innovation, John Melia, argues that the recycling system in the UK needs to change to meet recycling rate targets and achieve a circular economy.
With a current recycling rate of just 44%, the UK is lagging far behind on where we need to be to achieve our recycling goals. In fact, modelling carried out on behalf of DS Smith identified that we are in danger of missing our 2035 65% recycling rate target by thirteen years. As recycling rates stagnate, and even begin to decline, the gap will only continue to grow.
A new approach to recycling
Declining recycling rates mean we have to question whether the UK’s recycling systems are fit for purpose. As the largest recycler of paper and cardboard packaging in the UK, DS Smith see all too often the amount of contaminants, such as plastic, end up at our mill in Kent. When this happens, it’s not good news – like any other manufacturing process, making high quality recycled paper for new packaging requires a high-quality raw material.
The continued prevalence of co-mingled recycling streams – where different types of material such as paper, glass and plastic are collected together with paper and card – severely compromises the quality of recycled materials. Consequently, material intended for recycling either risks being too heavily contaminated or risks ending up not being recycled at all. Contamination is an issue, as it either requires us to remove it at the mill, which is costly, or ends up being too contaminated to use and has to be disposed of as general waste.
Whilst paper and cardboard has the highest recycling rate of any packaging material, it all too often ends up impacted by contamination arising from these co-mingled recycling streams.
The need for a better solution
As we look to move to a low carbon, circular economy, where we recycle and reuse materials as much as possible, increasing the percentage of material that is actually recycled once collected in the UK is essential. This will help to satisfy the continually increasing demand by brands, in turn fuelled by consumer demand, to use the most sustainable materials available in their packaging and that means not only switching to fibre-based packaging, but also using less virgin and more recycled paper fibres.
Additionally, the UK collects much more paper for recycling than we use in our domestic paper mills. About half of the paper that is collected here is exported outside the UK to be recycled and used. Maintaining these outlets for our surplus paper is essential to deliver and improve our paper and card recycling rates in the UK. There was a time that material could find a market in overseas and emerging recycling markets regardless of quality, but not anymore; the watchword in just about all markets now is ‘quality’. If our lower quality materials are rejected, then we risk falling even further behind on our recycling targets.
The case for source segregation
DS Smith’s own data and experience tell us that the best way to improve the quality of materials collected for recycling, specifically paper and card, is to separate materials at source – the point at which we put them in our recycling containers. By adopting the same source-segregated system throughout the country to separate our waste before it goes into our recycling system, we can help ensure that materials are less likely to be contaminated.
Although source segregation alone will not result in us meeting our target recycling rates, it is a vital step in improving the quality of our recycled materials, keeping materials that should be recycled out of landfill and energy-from-waste and ultimately helping to reduce our environmental impact.
It is no coincidence that the countries in Europe with the highest recycling rates are those with recycling systems based on a source-segregated approach to collection.
Making the transition
Already in the UK, we’ve seen how source segregation – as part of a well-thought-out waste and recycling strategy – can increase recycling rates. Welsh councils are leading the way; many have weekly recycling collections and source segregation in place. In 2020-21 Wales achieved the UK-wide recycling target of 65%. In part, this achievement is the result of an ambitious target set by the devolved government to recycle 70% of all municipal waste by 2025.
Fortunately, there are signs that Government recognises the link between source segregated collections, high recycling rates and improved recyclate quality; in the recent consultation on “consistency in household and business recycling in England”, DEFRA proposed that all local authorities should adopt a recycling scheme based on separate collection of paper and card. In the coming weeks, we expect to see the Government issue its response to this consultation and we hope that the principle of separate collection of paper and card remains central to the proposed way forward.
Alongside the reform of collection systems, a review of the TEEP (Technically, Environmentally and Economically Practicable) regulations is essential. Whilst the aim of TEEP is to improve recycling quality and recycling rates, TEEP exemptions can be used where local authorities argue that it is not technically feasible, environmentally beneficial, or cost effective to offer a segregated recycling system. The ease with which exemptions are granted creates an issue, as they allow councils to justify the use of co-mingled recycling collections which are less than fit for purpose. Reforming TEEP will provide much clearer guidance to local government on the best collection methods to use.
However, change can be driven at the local level, by councils opting to switch from co-mingled systems to source segregated collections.
The UK’s recycling system must change if we are to increase the country’s recycling rate and achieve a circular, low carbon economy. We can no longer afford to be losing recyclable materials to landfill or waste-to-energy, or producing low quality recycling due to collection processes that are not fit for purpose. Whilst a nationwide source segregated collection system is not a simple panacea to cure all ills, it’s certainly a big step in the right direction.
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