To mark World Recycling Day, Thomas Parker takes a look at the five best recycling countries in the world, and what makes these so successful

Little Girl Holding Recycling Bin.

Image: PET bottles. Photo: courtesy of Plastics Recyclers Europe.

From handing over waste management responsibility to packaging firms to re-using materials for their initial purpose, the world’s best recycling countries are coming up with innovative ways of upping their sustainability game.

According to 2018 figures from the United Nations, 11.2 billion tonnes of solid waste is produced on Earth every year, with this contributing to about 5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

Given these statistics, governments of major nations from around the world are doing more to develop recycling programmes.

European Union targets set out last year require member nations to recycle at least 70% of all packaged goods by 2030 and for household recycling rates to be 65% by 2035.

best recycling countries
Here are the top 5 recycling nations in the world, according to a report published last year by the Eunomia Research & Consulting with the European Environmental Bureau

In 2018, environmental consultancy firm Eunomia Research and Consulting teamed up with the European Environmental Bureau to release data on the top nations for recycling rates in the world.

To mark World Recycling Day, we take a look at the five best recycling countries, according to the report.


Top five best recycling countries

1. Germany – 56.1%

Since 2016, Germany has had the highest recycling rate in the world, with 56.1% of all waste it produced last year being recycled.

In 1990, Germany conducted a packaging audit to help counteract the potential rise of landfill problems.

To help prevent this, policymakers made producers responsible for the packaging waste they developed.

Germany operates a producer responsibility system, whereby producers finance the operation of waste management (Wikimedia)

The response to this by manufacturers was to create “The Green Dot”, the first ever duel recycling system in world for collecting waste from households and businesses.

It is funded by industry and waste costs are dependent on the weight of a product that companies make – therefore, the lighter it is, the less money that has to be paid by manufacturers.

This collaboration has led to the recycling rate in Germany increase from 3% in 1991 to 56.1%.


2. Austria – 53.8%

Fellow Bavarian nation Austria takes second place in the Eunomia list with a recycling rate of 53.8% in 2018.

Austria has banned all products that has over 5% organic carbon rate going into landfills, effectively banning most packaging going there.

The country has a blanket ban on certain waste types going to landfill.

Any product that has a total organic carbon emission rate of more than 5% is banned, which in effect prevents any packaging from ending up in the ground.

Like Germany, Austria operates a producer responsibility model. The most well-known of the companies running these systems in the country is Altstoff Recycling Austria (ARA).

The ARA was set up in 1993 and is responsible for the waste management of the businesses that pay into the firm.

It is a big believer in the circular economy and also offers teaching materials, including comics and colouring books, to help educate young people about the importance of recycling.


3. South Korea – 53.7%

The only non-European nation in the top five, South Korea had a recycling rate of 53.7% in 2018.

It has enjoyed success until now with a system in which privately-run companies collect the waste and sell it on for profit.

However, this is due to change soon after near-neighbour China altered its own environmental policy.

In April last year, the economic superpower banned the import of plastic waste, and as the biggest buyer of Korean material, this was a problem.

Last year China banned the import of plastic waste, causing Korean recycling companies to lose significant amounts of money (Wikimedia)

Korean businesses are no longer making as much money from the recycling scheme, resulting in staff lay-offs and plastic waste starting to pile up on its streets.

These issues lasted for two weeks before the government agreed to provide financial help to the recycling companies.

Commenting on the waste management crisis, former Environment Secretary Kim Eun Kyung said: “To resolve the plastic waste crisis, society as a whole needs to change its ways of production, consumption, recycling and even the culture.”

South Korea has since implemented policies that include the banning of both coloured plastic bottles and PVC by 2020.

It will also reduce and eventually phase-out disposable cups and plastic screws, getting rid of these products completely by 2027.


4. Wales – 52.2%

Wales has a constitutional responsibility for promoting sustainability

It’s the smallest country on the list but Wales is flying high when it comes to its 52.2% recycling rate recorded in 2018.

Due to constitutional rules set out by the country’s devolved government, its policymakers have a statutory duty to help promote sustainable development.

Like the rest of the UK, recycling in Wales is operated by local administrations.

However, the Welsh Assembly has offered a recovery system to local areas that can be financed by councils, with most taking the scheme on board.

This means that both people and businesses have similar rules on what can and can’t be recycled across the country.

Alongside this, Wales operates a “circular economy in all but name”, according to Dr Andy Rees, head of waste strategy for the Welsh government.

The country also has frozen targets.

Set out in 2010, it aims to have a 70% recylcing rate nationwide by 2025.

In 2020, the Welsh government will launch a £6.5m fund to try encourage packaging manufacturers to produce goods in the country, helping firms to develop more products that are suited to the circular economy.

The system has been so successful, it reached its recycling target of 64% by 2019/2020 four years early.

More broadly, the UK government is currently conducting a consultation into policies that it’s looking to implement, including a plastics tax and a deposit-return scheme.


5. Switzerland – 49.7%

Along with developers, consumers are a part of the the polluter pays policy in Switzerland

Rounding off the top five is Switzerland, which had a recycling rate of 49.7% in 2018.

One of the keys to the recycling system in the country, which is hailed by many as one of the best in the world, is due to its “polluter pays” policy – in which households and businesses pay for any non-recycling waste they produce.

Unlike in Austria and Germany, this principle is incurred by the public as well as manufacturers, meaning that regular citizens are encouraged to recycle.

Alongside this policy, bin bags for landfill waste are also taxed.

Commonly used household goods including tin and aluminium cans, light bulbs, paper and electronic products can be recycled, with these being taken to recycling points across the country – commonly found at supermarkets.