Britain's holiday waste smashes all records

Christmas packaging, millions of trees and up to a billion cards are heading to landfill – even though much of it could be recycled

by Michael Smith

Despite, it would appear, the credit crunch and probable very hard times ahead the Brits have been spending on Christmas on a huge scale.

As millions of households now wade through crumpled wrapping, plastic ties and discarded boxes, the sheer weight of refuse in coming days is expected to smash all records. Much of this waste is, obviously, from packaging in which all those toys came that were found under the tree, often very expensive presents. This is yet another sign that proves that this season has become nothing but one of shopping frenzy because the “little darlings” want all those things and we dare not disappoint them. The gods help us when the credit crunch turns into a depression, as it would appear that it just might.

Waste watchdogs warned that rubbish from the estimated 100 million toys unwrapped on Christmas is likely to burn big holes in the ozone layer as well as in parents' pockets.

The Waste and Resources Action Program (Wrap) said toy manufacturers are not putting enough information about recycling on their packaging and, as a result, most of it will be sent needlessly to landfill. Over Christmas 2008 alone, this will lead to more than 400 extra tonnes of harmful C02. The news is a blow to the Government's 2007 Waste Strategy, which aims to see 40 per cent of all household waste recycled by 2010.

The fact is that much of this waste could be recycled and much more of the packaging, if properly designed, could even be reused.

A survey by Recycle Now has shown that while 89 per cent of British parents with children under the age of 12 would like to recycle toy packaging, 53 per cent found it difficult to know what was suitable for recycling.

"A large proportion of the packaging material from toys is actually recyclable because it is made from paper or cardboard," said Andy Dawe, Wrap's head of retail. "It is helpful for consumers to have labeling on the types of material that make up the packaging and which of these can be recycled. It also makes a real difference if different materials can be separated. For example, where a box includes cardboard with a plastic window, it should be made as simple as possible to remove the window."

While that may be so and also quite easy as far as the little or not so little “cellophane” - for it is not real cellophane now it it – to remove it, many of the toys seem to, nowadays, also come in those “lovely” blister packs which are a combination of card and plastic, often laminated together. Great for recycling – NOT!

The government-funded agency is now calling on toy manufacturers to improve recycling instructions on their products, and on consumers to redouble their recycling efforts.

The truth is that it is often not possible to recycle certain materials, whatever the claim may be. They are laminated together and are hard or impossible to separate and I know that councils and recycling centers do not want to know that kind of material.

We need to get back to the simple cardboard box, please, and ideally on that is designed to be another product by means of a little DIY. It can be done for it has been done before.

Let me call, yet again, on the design community to get their thinking caps on and do something on this level. It is hardly rocket science. A child can do it.

Now, coming to think of it... children indeed could do it and they might come up with better ideas than many of the experts who have tunnel vision.

The British Toy & Hobby Association (BTHA) said through their spokesperson Natasha Crookes that it is for manufacturers, government-led organizations and consumers themselves to do this as, as she said, 70% of toy packaging is now recyclable. So, she said, it is really about getting people to recycle, especially at Christmas when everyone is busy unwrapping their presents.”

Industry and industry associations must get away from always putting the emphasis on the consumer and everyone else bar the industry. Packaging manufactures especially must do their part here as far as toy and other packaging is concerned. Designers can help by designing packaging to be reusable and re-purposable, as this is way more important and far better than recycling in the first place. But before all there must be a reduction in packaging.

In 2007, the UK recycled 9.7 million tonnes of household waste, an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year. However, some fear that the current economic downturn may lead to companies prioritizing profits over their environmental obligations.

"It is vitally important that we carry on recycling," Andy Dawe said. "If we stop, all materials will go to landfill – and that is the worst possible outcome."

While, however, everyone talks recycling, recycling and recycling, and while a few retailers and outlets, such as Boots and have already begun reducing packaging, it is that that is most important. The first “R” needs to be considered before the last of the three, namely “recycling”. After reducing it must be reusing and here, as said, the challenge is also on the designers and the manufacturers of packaging.

Honestly, we are not talking rocket science here now, are we.

© M Smith (Veshengro), December 2008