DS Smith surveys: Generational split found internationally with young consumers least confident about recycling

New data from sustainable packaging leader, DS Smith, has revealed that the generational gap in recycling has gone global – with older people more than any other generation holding themselves accountable for responsibly recycling of boxes.

While Gen Z members often are considered to be the most environmentally conscious, they have the least confidence among all age groups in knowing how to recycle, based on the packaging leader’s new survey in the UK that matches a similar company poll in the United States.

In the latest UK poll, two thirds of Gen Z respondents (those born from 1997 to 2012) blame barriers to recycling, including confusion over what items can be recycled, a shortage of recycling bins and lack of clear disposal instructions on products. Only 41% of those over age 55 see such obstacles.

Also, twice as many in the Gen Z group compared to their older counterparts say they don’t know where to find advice on recycling.

The findings indicate that the generational split on sustainability is international.

A DS Smith survey in the U.S., released in May 2021, found that Baby Boomers – the generation that came of age amid the first Earth Day in 1970 – are the most motivated to recycle those leftover boxes.

Broken out by generation, Baby Boomers (71%) hold themselves more accountable for responsibly recycling their boxes than others – millennials (60%), Gen Z (59%) and Gen X (58%).

“To encourage all generations to play their part in helping the environment, we have to remove the barriers that keep them from doing so,” said Keith Tornes, managing director of Paper, Forestry and Recycling for DS Smith North America. “That’s why at DS Smith, we have publicly supported local initiatives to improve recycling infrastructure and increased awareness to help consumers understand how and what to recycle.” 

The U.S. survey found that all groups were united when asked about the surplus of boxes from e-commerce spending and the message was clear: They’re not bothered by the extra packages but do want them made of sustainable materials.

About 44% of those surveyed report getting more shopping deliveries during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 15% saying they are “drowning in boxes.”

In an important, pro-environment signal, three-quarters (73%) of those polled say they care if the box is made from sustainable materials.

DS Smith, in its operations, supports a circular economy that aims to reduce and eliminate waste and advocates for the reuse of materials, including its box-to-box in 14 days model that ensures boxes are collected, recycled and turned into new boxes within two weeks.

In 2020, in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the company launched its Circular Design Principles, centered around optimizing design for sustainability and waste reduction; and in 2021 it unveiled its Circular Design Metrics, an industry first that allows customers to rate the circularity of their packaging.

The company’s purpose is to “Redefine Packaging for a Changing World,” and as part of its “Now and Next Sustainability Strategy” and commitment to the circular economy, the company by 2030 will use packaging and recycling to replace problem plastics, reduce customer carbon and eliminate consumer packaging waste.

For instance, DS Smith recently announced that it has designed out more than 313 million pieces of problem plastics in the last two years alone as part of its ambitious plastic replacement program.

That amounts to more than three million units per week, as customers and consumers demonstrate demand for fiber-based packaging as an alternative to hard-to-recycle and single-use plastics.

To meet this demand, DS Smith designers have worked with customers to create thousands of new innovations to remove everyday plastic items.

About the survey

The U.S. survey was conducted online April 1-5, 2021, among 1,020 Americans who have the same amount or more boxes lying around from online shopping compared to pre-pandemic. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

About DS Smith

DS Smith is a leading provider of sustainable fiber-based packaging worldwide, which is supported by recycling and papermaking operations. It plays a central role in the value chain across sectors including e-commerce, fast moving consumer goods and industrials. Through its purpose of ‘Redefining Packaging for a Changing World’ and its Now and Next sustainability strategy, DS Smith is committed to leading the transition to the circular economy, while delivering more circular solutions for its customers and wider society – replacing problem plastics, taking carbon out of supply chains and providing innovative recycling solutions. Its bespoke box-to-box in 14 days model, design capabilities and innovation strategy sits at the heart of this response. Headquartered in London and a member of the FTSE 100, DS Smith operates in 34 countries employing around 30,000 people and is a Strategic Partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Its history can be traced back to the box-making businesses started in the 1940s by the Smith family. North American operations are based in Atlanta, with 15 manufacturing, paper and recycling facilities, totaling more than 2,000 employees. DS Smith operates in 34 countries employing around 30,000 people and is a Strategic Partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. DS Smith will report annually its progress across its climate targets in its Sustainability and Annual Reports.