We need a new approach to recycling to protect the planet

Recycling is key to combatting waste and protecting the world’s resources, but a new approach may be needed. Jochen Behr, head of recycling at DS Smith discusses Earth Overshoot Day and why recycling matters now more than ever.

The way we live as consumers is rapidly evolving. Awareness of our impact on the planet and its resources is significantly heightened compared to a decade ago, and there is a real desire from consumers and businesses alike to create change for the good. Despite this, for the first time ever and two months earlier than it was 20 years ago, July 29 2019 was Earth Overshoot Day.

This is the tipping point in the calendar when humans have used up 100% of the year’s supply of resources.

Having ‘overshot’ our usage, we are now in ecological debt – meaning that every resource we ‘spend’ for the rest of the year is in the red. That’s why recycling matters now more than ever.

What is an ‘overshoot’?

An ‘overshoot’ occurs when the demands of the population exceed the environment’s ability to provide resources. The Global Footprint Network calculates Earth Overshoot Day every year to show the point at which human resource use has become unsustainable.

We’re getting into ecological debt earlier each year. Humanity lived within the ‘budget’ of the Earth’s natural resources until around 1970, when Earth Overshoot Day was December 23rd. But since then, our use of resources has only increased. Our carbon footprint has more than doubled since the early 1970s – as has the world’s population, from 3.6 billion people in 1970 to 7.7 billion people in 2019.

We’re depleting our resources far quicker than they are being renewed, and every year, we’re doing it more quickly, through overfishing, deforestation, food waste, pollution and other human-made problems.

Recycling has a huge role to play in helping to better manage our environmental impact – it can help us keep materials in use for longer, extracting as much value as possible from our scarce resources. As a business that operates a circular supply cycle for paper-based packaging, DS Smith witnesses first-hand the powerful benefits of keeping resources in use for longer. But we also see the results of poor recycling systems. Unless there is a focus on providing quality material for recycling, material that is intended for recycling risks being burnt or landfilled, and that isn’t good for our resource efficiency.

What can we do to help?

Our resource use has been accelerating, but as people become more aware of the problem, we are taking steps to cut waste and increase our sustainability. In the age of Blue Planet II people are more environmentally conscious than ever, and that consciousness is turning to action. Consumers are demanding that organisations act more responsibly, and they are willing to hold them to account.

Organisations are playing their part – through corporate social responsibility programmes and a greater understanding of how their resource use impacts on the communities in which they operate, as well as the wider environment.

Governments around the world are implementing legislation to help combat resource waste. In 2015, the EU launched its Circular Economy Action Plan in a bid to protect the environment and generate sustainable growth across Europe.

And in the UK, we have seen the launch and consultations on the Resources and Waste Strategy, and this is to be followed closely by the Environment Bill. Together these are two pieces of significant legislation that will help shape how the UK manages its resources going forward.

DS Smith’s own Tipping Point report looked at recycling performance in the UK in recent years and combined this with the effect that changing consumer behaviours is having on our recycling patterns. The outlook is worrying, without action now the UK is set to miss its 2035 recycling target of 65% by over a decade.

As an integrated packaging and recycling organisation, we see a need for a new approach to packaging – and a need for strong leadership in our industry. How do we deliver more products, without more vehicles making our cities more congested? How do we protect products from damage, reduce the amount of packaging in our homes, and recycle more of our resources?

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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