In part three of the Economy and Finance Network’s Coronavirus Economics blog series, Lauma Kalns-Timans investigates how the transition of the economy to online turbocharged by the pandemic has impacted waste and recycling.
As the world shut its doors and people stayed indoors to save lives, individuals rapidly changed their approach to purchasing goods and necessities. Internet sales jumped to 28.1% of all retail sales in the UK in 2020, up from just 19.2% in 2019¹ with around 60% of adults in the UK estimated to be purchasing something online each week in Q3 of 2021.²
Source: ONS, Internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales
This kind of rapid change to the way large numbers of individuals behave has inevitable consequences on not only the economy but also people’s lives, the public services we need as a society and so on. Consequently, the UK’s online retail habits resulted in changes to employment with further demand for precarious gig economy type jobs, acceleration of the decline of the high street, but also disruption to the industry of packaging and the subsequent waste.
When the way people buy changes, unavoidably, the world of packaging also changes. As the share of sales online grew in 2020, the UK was estimated to consume 5 billion parcels, up 33% from the previous year and equivalent to 74 packages per person.³ Businesses consequently struggled to access sufficient packaging to meet demand⁴ and prices of cardboard rose significantly from £10-20/tonne in May 2019 to £45-55/tonne in 2021 and even £60-75/tonne in 2022.⁵
With packaging growing in volume and people spending more time at home, waste volumes grew substantially too. In 2020, household waste volumes grew to 399kg per person reversing a three-year trend in declining volumes of household waste⁶ with total volumes of waste reaching 22.6 million tonnes in 2020, a volume of waste last produced by households in 2016.⁷
Whilst household waste volumes were increasing, recycling has not kept pace. Local authorities were unable to maintain some services such as Household Waste and Recycling Centres in parts of the country during the lockdown. Consequently, the share of household waste recycled fell to 44%, below 2012 levels. Further, the absolute volume of waste recycled also fell.
Source: Waste from Household Statistics 2010-2020 Defra, WasteDataFlow, *Dry recycling rate excludes organic recycling
Such a large decline, combined with limited historic improvements in recycling rates under the Conservative and Coalition governments, has meant that England failed to achieve its target for recycling 50% of household waste by 2020. While the focus of many environmental actions to create a sustainable economy revolves around carbon, meeting these types of waste treatment targets is a key aspect of reaching carbon targets. After all, waste is estimated to account for 5% of global emissions⁸ – double the volume produced by the airline industry.⁹ Beyond reducing carbon emissions, it is imperative the UK government focuses on improving waste treatment capabilities to reach wider environmental targets such as reducing pollution, limiting use of scarce resources and decreasing the impacts of waste on the environment, people’s health and biodiversity.
This recent poor performance in waste recycling highlights a greater trend in recycling in the UK and the limited priority that it experiences from the government. While the UK had better recycling rates for municipal waste (waste from households, businesses, and institutions) than Europe at the start of the Conservatives’ time in government, this has not continued to be the case. Over the past decade the rest of Europe has successfully grown its recycling rates and overtaken the UK to recycle greater shares of their waste. Sufficient funding and regulation to encourage greater recycling volumes and ensure businesses cover more of the negative externalities produced by their products are needed to stay on track to achieve a more sustainable circular economy.
The discussion here has focused on the historic from lockdown and before, but the transitioning economy and our treatment of its waste should still be of concern today. The trend of shifting online sales is not just a Covid phenomenon, eCommerce prevalence jumped during the Covid-induced lockdowns, but it has not since returned to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, in 2021 internet sales increased again to 30.7% of retail sales with the latest 2022 first quarter numbers for internet sales remaining high at 27.9%. So, addressing waste patterns is imperative to sustainably allow changes to the way our economy works and people buy products. Ensuring local councils and authorities have sufficient funding to effectively collect and manage waste streams effectively is key to ensuring that we achieve high levels of recycling in our transition to a less carbon intensive and pollutive economy.
Lauma Kalns-Timans is Secretary of the Economics and Finance Network and works in ESG and data equity research in the financial industry.
2 Hootsuite, We are Social, Digital 2022 Global Overview Report, 12 June 2022
3 Pitney Bowes, Pitney Bowes Parcel Shipping Index 2020, https://www.pitneybowes.com/us/shipping-index.html, 12 June 2022
4 Bloomberg, https://www.bnnbloomberg.ca/cardboard-box-shortage-is-latest-disruption-to-global-shipping-1.1714356, 12 June 2022
5 Let’s Recycle, Merchant Prices £ per tonne delivered Old KLS (cardboard), https://www.letsrecycle.com/prices/waste-paper/merchant-prices/2022-merchant-prices/, 12 June 2022
6 Waste from Household Statistics 2010-2020 Defra, WasteDataFlow https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/env18-local-authority-collected-waste-annual-results-tables#full-publication-update-history, 13 July 2022
7 Progress Report on recycling and recovery targets for England 2020, Progress report on recycling and recovery targets for England 2020 - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk), 13 July 2022
8 What a Waste 2.0: A global snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, World Bank Group
9 Our World in Data, Climate change and flying: what share of global CO2 emissions come from aviation? - Our World in Data, 14 July 2022