Britain’s creaking recycling system could cost economy billions of pounds

Falling recycling rates could cost the British economy billions of pounds and inflict long lasting damage on the environment


Despite more people willing to recycle and invest in a sustainable lifestyle than ever before, recycling rates for paper and cardboard packaging have dropped sharply from a peak of nearly 80% in 2017 to 65% in 2020, industry figures show(1).

If the UK could recycle this material into new packaging papers, instead of sending it to landfill or incineration, it would be worth billions to the economy – up to £1billion last year alone(2) - but the country is being held back by creaking recycling infrastructure and complex local recycling rules.

We make 20 billion boxes a year for many of the world’s biggest brands, and are an advocate of separate collections for paper and card to improve the quality and quantity of recycling.

Miles Roberts, Group CEO at DS Smith, said: “As Europe’s largest recycler of paper and cardboard, we have committed to manufacturing 100% recyclable packaging by 2023 and are acutely aware of the huge responsibilities we face in protecting the environment and reducing waste.

“But we can only do this efficiently if we all play our part in managing resources more effectively and make it as easy as possible for people to recycle properly in their home, otherwise we risk serious economic and environmental consequences for generations to come.

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“If we are to truly build back better, separate collections of paper and card are a critical step forward in creating a modern recycling system that secures green investment, helps the UK reach its climate goals and adapts to the huge new trends in consumer behaviour.”

We welcome the UK government’s recent consultation on making collections consistent but it needs to achieve a positive outcome otherwise the country’s recycling system risks falling further behind.

Many leading recycling nations in Europe such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands have benefitted from separate collections of paper and card for years.

In contrast, there are up to 300 different council recycling schemes in England (3), with a bewildering array of different kerbside recycling arrangements, leaving households confused over their local recycling rules.

Separate collections would also pave the way for standardised recycling labels on all packaging and collection bins to better inform consumers what materials can be recycled and where.

1 CPI UK Paper and Board Packaging Recycling Rate 2013-2020
2 Based on DS Smith calculations using CPI data
3 Keep Britain Tidy (2017)