Recycling – who really leads the world?

New research reveals that the world’s leading recycling countries are overstating the level of real recycling they actually achieve.

A new report published by Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd with the support of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) challenges countries reporting the highest recycling rates across the world.

Researchers found differences in the way countries measure recycling rates, warning that some eye-catching recycling rate claims need to be treated with caution.

According to recycling rates reported by each country, Germany (66%), Wales (64%) and Singapore (61%) occupy the top three spots. But using the adjusted rates, the top three countries are Germany (56%), Austria (54%) and South Korea (54%) with Wales dropping into fourth place (52%).

Other countries in the adjusted top ten are Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Singapore.

The study looks at reported recycling rates of municipal solid waste that is made up of everyday items that are disposed of by the public at home or on the go.

The lack of a common methodology to measure recycling rates for municipal waste has led some countries to overstate their actual recycling, the researchers found. Germany, for example, includes large amounts of commercial and industrial waste in its reported figures, while Wales includes a contribution from incineration.

Experts have highlighted the need for common definitions for municipal waste and recycling as well as for a consistent method of accounting for non-recyclable elements such as contamination and processing loss which in reality ends up in landfill or incinerators.

Stéphane Arditi, Policy Manager on Circular Economy for the EEB said:

This kind of ground-breaking research tells us what EU countries really need to do to achieve higher recycling rates, which require proper collection and recycling of biowaste.

Rob Gillies, Eunomia Managing Consultant and report author added that the study provides a platform to share best practices by shining a spotlight on what countries are actually doing to improve recycling.

Gillies argues that, albeit to different degrees, the top perfoming countries have adopted policies such as mandatory separate collection of key recyclable materials, including bio-waste, and Extended Producer Responsibility schemes, where producers fund the collection of key recyclables.

Other popular measures include Pay As You Throw schemes, deposit return systems and taxes on landfill and incineration.

EU countries are currently discussing proposals for higher recycling targets and other measures that could help them prevent waste generation. Arditi said:

“The fact that some countries have increased recycling rates by 35 percentage points in under 15 years shows that all member states can achieve the new EU recycling targets.”