Ecommerce set to boom, but ‘government must invest’ to keep packaging out of landfill

As Rishi Sunak waters down green policies, concerns are raised that he is failing to take the threat of increased packaging waste on the environment seriously, warns industry expert Josh Pitman, of Priory Direct.

The thriving ecommerce sector is set to scale over the next five years driven by extensive consumer demand.

But unless Rishi Sunak’s government responds now by improving the UK’s recycling rates, infrastructure and capacity, it risks exacerbating the climate crisis.

Figures show that the ecommerce market has seen significant growth of almost 40 per cent over the last 10 years. Yet municipal recycling rates in England have flatlined during the same period – growing by just 0.3 per cent between 2020 and 2021 and remaining at between 44 and 46 per cent for the past 11 years.

The ecommerce market is expected to grow even further, by one-fifth (22 per cent) per year until 2028. But, as Pitman argues, without investment into our existing and already overstretched recycling facilities, there will be little option other than to send the inevitable increase in domestic packaging waste straight to landfill.

Pitman’s firm, Priory Direct, is on a mission is to minimise the environmental impact of ecommerce. He says, “UK consumers have well and truly adopted online shopping for a raft of reasons and ecommerce is here to stay.

“This is a positive thing, but what we need is forward planning by government to prepare for the inevitable growth of the sector.

“With more package deliveries, households are disposing of greater volumes of packaging, including widely used LDPE soft plastics and films.

“Unless the UK pours investment into its municipal recycling capacity and infrastructure, particularly for wider recycling of all plastics, our landfills will be at capacity and our environment and wastewater will face an even greater problem than they do now.

“Nationally, there is currently only capacity for around 220,000 tonnes of plastic film recycling each year.

“But less than five per cent of this is dedicated to municipal film recycling, even though households account for around half of the UK’s 665,000 tonnes of annual plastic packaging waste.”

Another way to alleviate the impact of packaging waste on the environment is through more sustainable packaging choices by retailers. Many are already reducing their use of plastic by opting for more widely recycled alternatives including paper and cardboard.

National recycling statistics also hide regional disparities, with sizeable differences in recycling rates recorded across different municipalities.

DEFRA’s data indicates that cities generally have a far lower recycling rate than rural areas, some of the worst offenders being Westminster City Council, with just 20.9 per cent of household waste sent for reuse, recycling or composting; Birmingham City Council (22.8 per cent); and Liverpool City Council (22.9 per cent).

At the other end of the scale, rural councils in Three Rivers and South Oxfordshire report significantly higher recycling rates, at 63.5 per cent and 62.7 per cent, respectively.

One of the key reasons for this is the lack of space. People living in cities reside primarily in flats, which make up 80 per cent of the properties within Westminster City Council, for example. Consequently, they have less storage space for recycling in their homes compared to rural dwellers.

While this creates a need for more frequent recycling collections, the infrastructure to accommodate these is lacking.

Pitman adds that positive steps are being taken, such as the recent launch of a significant two-year trial of kerbside collection of plastic bags and wrapping in Reading, Bracknell Forest and Wokingham, but the pace and scale of progress is slow.

He says: “Varying levels of effective communication and public engagement around household recycling is another factor influencing recycling rates.

“I strongly believe that people should be informed about the lack of recycling capacity in the current UK system. Public awareness will drive the conversation and put pressure on the government, and local authorities, to act and invest.”

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