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The winners and losers of our failure to recycle our online shopping boxes

·3-min read
Parcel deliveries have shot up, but at what cost to the environment? (Getty Images)
Parcel deliveries have shot up, but at what cost to the environment? (Getty Images)

It’s one of those lockdown cliches: how many cardboard boxes are get delivered to your house these days?

Thanks to the online home shopping explosion triggered by Covid, parcels from Amazon, Tesco and no end of other retailers have surged, with Royal Mail alone having delivered nearly 500 million in the last three months of 2020 - up a third on pre-pandemic levels.

For the biggest maker of cardboard boxes, that’s a blessing and a curse.

While volumes at DS Smith are rising strongly and boosting its turnover, the cost of the recycled paper and card it uses to make new boxes in its mill south of London is going through the roof.

That, alongside increased energy and other costs, is driving up overheads at DS Smith, contributing to a fall in its share price following financial results earlier this month..

The problem, says chief executive Miles Roberts, is that people are getting more boxes coming into their homes than ever before but aren’t recycling it properly.

“It’s ending up in people’s garages rather than the recycling bin,” he tells the Evening Standard.

“The other day I saw a neighbour of mine burning a garage load of his on a bonfire. I said: ‘What are you doing? We need that!’”

He says despite the surge in home shopping, last year’s recoveries of old boxes for recycling were the same as the previous year. “We need to work on local authorities to work on recycling, getting people to segregate their waste better, having more collections.

“We have to remove hundreds of millions of boxes from people’s homes and garages and get them into the recycling system.”

The UK, he says, wastes 22% of its cardboard, contaminating it unnecessarily with food and other rubbish or sending it off to landfill or burning it.

That is a huge wasted opportunity for a product that is one of the neatest, most circular solutions to the landfill crisis in the West - turning old packaging into new.

It also means he is having to put up the price of his new boxes. Higher energy, transport and labour costs haven’t helped, but it is the rising cost of old corrugated cases - OCCs in the jargon - that is really hurting. And that will feed through into the prices we consumers pay for our home delivery goods.

There is another side to the rising prices for OCCs, however.

While DS Smith complains, the recycling firms which process the stuff and sell it to the big manufacturers are delighted.

Simon Ellin, chief executive of The Recycling Assocation, says: “Before Covid, prices were so low we were on our knees. The market was oversupplied and we were getting as little as £20 a tonne. When you consider we’re collecting, baling, shipping the stuff, that’s nothing.

“Now, though, it’s six or seven times that.”

Perhaps naturally, given that his members want prices to stay high, he seems less concerned than Roberts about the amount of recycling that’s been happening during Covid.

“Initially, the councils stopped doing collections but we got on to Defra and, to be fair, the councils started collecting again and we have kept supplies going.”

It seems inevitable, though, that demand for cardboard will rise as more of us shop online and become increasingly aware of the environmental costs.

Roberts sees it first hand from his retail clients: “The public are increasingly keen on cardboard replacing plastic packaging and are demanding it from the shops they use,” he says.

“In the past six or eight months, it’s really changed. I guess it’s because they’ve just seen so much packaging arriving in their homes that it’s really brought it home to them.”

Sound familiar?

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