Jochen Behr, Head of Recycling at DS Smith, discusses the implications of 'ecological debt' and how we can create change.

For the first time ever, and around two months earlier than it was 20 years ago, the 29th July 2019 was Earth Overshoot Day. This is the tipping point when humans have used up 100% of the year’s supply of resources, according to the Global Footprint Network. Having ‘overshot’ our usage, we are now in ecological debt – meaning that every resource we ‘spend’ for the rest of the year pushes us further into the red.

This is why recycling matters now more than ever. Awareness of our impact on the planet and its resources is increasing, and there is a real desire from consumers and businesses alike to create change to support our environment.

What is an ‘overshoot’?

An ‘overshoot’ occurs when the demands of the population exceed the environment’s ability to provide resources. Humans lived within the ‘budget’ of the Earth’s natural resources until around 1970, when Earth Overshoot Day was December 23rd. But since then, we’ve steadily increased our use of resources. The world’s carbon footprint and population has more than doubled since the 1970s, from 3.6 billion people in 1970 to 7.7 billion people in 2019. 

Recycling is crucial in helping us better manage the impact we have on the environment – it can help us keep materials in use for longer, extracting as much value as possible from our limited resources. As a business that operates a circular supply cycle for paper-based packaging, DS Smith has key insight into the 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, we risk material that is intended for recycling going instead to landfill or being burnt.

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. 

What can we do to help?

Following on from Blue Planet II, there has been a rapid increase in campaigns demonstrating the environmental impact of the way we live. People are more environmentally conscious than ever before, and that consciousness is turning to action. They are demanding that organisations act more responsibly, and they are willing to hold them to account.

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.

Organisations are playing an important role as well – through corporate social responsibility programmes and a greater understanding of how their resource use impacts the communities in which they operate, but also on the wider macro environments.

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

As an integrated packaging and recycling organisation, what drives us is our purpose of redefining packaging for a changing world. We see a need for a new approach to packaging - and a need for strong leadership in our industry.

For DS Smith, building a more sustainable business for the long term is a key priority. In our 2018 Sustainability Review we created a new set of nine ambitious, long term targets that set out a clear direction of travel between now and 2030. In addition to this, we are making over £1 million from our Charitable Foundation available to invest in sustainability or education initiatives. This programme will jumpstart local projects across DS Smith’s global footprint and support innovative new programmes that will make a real difference to the communities in which we operate.

And to build on our own circular expertise, we recently became the 11th Global Partner to the world leader in circular economy strategies - The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This partnership will accelerate our circular economy drive and support innovation across the business, including urban recycling and carbon-efficiency in e-commerce.

For our customers, our business model is truly circular. Our capabilities and complementary recycling, paper and packaging operations allow us to look at customer challenges holistically. For packaging we have a closed loop recycling system that ensures we embed sustainability into our products and services, delivering integrated and innovative packaging and recycling solutions.