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Recycling: How does the UK compare and what could we learn from Europe?

Recycling may be a familiar practice for United Kingdom households and businesses alike, but where do the Home Nation’s efforts rank compared to the rest of Europe?

In July 2018, European leaders approved a package that aimed to prevent waste and improve recycling numbers across Europe.

It was a European commitment to a circular economy, where the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible, and waste and resource use are minimised.

The Circular Economy Package, published in the Official Journal of the EU, requires EU countries to recycle at least 55% of their municipal waste by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 65% by 2035.

Other measures approved include a 10% cap on landfill by 2035 and stricter schemes to force producers to pay for the collection of key recyclable materials.

And, despite a divorce from the European Union, a statement issued jointly by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the Welsh Government, and the Scottish Government, claimed commitment to a ‘more circular economy.’

But is the United Kingdom doing enough compared to European counterparts?


Latest official figures released by the EU’s statistical body, Eurostat, suggest the United Kingdom is far from world-beating when it comes to recycling, with the UK ranking 12th among member states.

The figures show 44.1% of the UK’s municipal waste was recycled in the latest available data from 2018, with the rate below the EU average of 47%.

And with improvement required with regards to a circular economy, the UK sent 69kg of waste per capita to landfill, a far cry from the achievements of Germany with only 5kg per capita heading to the ground.

Despite Government commitment, many worry that the targets are merely a goal without consequence should they be missed, with the data arguably confirmation.

What can be learned?

Germany can not only boast the highest recycling rate in Europe, but likewise the world, with around 56.1% of produce being recycled.

It is a triumph held since 2016, but the Germans have been dedicated to waste reduction for far longer.

In 1990, Germany conducted a packaging audit to help counteract a rise of waste sent to landfill and the problems this would cause.

Policymakers made producers responsible for the packaging waste they developed, with manufacturers responding with the creation of ‘The Green Dot’, the world’s first duel recycling system for collecting both household and business waste.

Waste costs are dependent on the weight of a product that companies produce, therefore the lighter it is, the less money it costs manufacturers.

The collaboration increased Germany’s recycling rate from a mere 3% in 1991 to the current 56.1%, already surpassing the EU target of 55% by 2025.

Today, 29 European countries as well as Israel and Turkey have adopted ‘The Green Dot’ system, although the United Kingdom’s involvements were not without controversy.

The BBC’s Watchdog found that The Green Dot symbol, which many consumers believe indicates that packaging is recyclable, was found on a variety of nonrecyclable products.

What’s more, while in European countries such as Germany it shows that money has been paid towards the cost of recycling, the company which licenses it in the UK, Valpak, confirmed that the symbol is “a meaningless trademark”.

Aside from The Green Dot, recycling has embedded itself into everyday German-life, with waste separation also high on the agenda.

There is a blue bin for paper, a brown or green bin for biodegradables, a yellow one for plastic and a black one for other recyclable materials.

Additionally, it is also common practice for Germans to return deposit bottles to supermarkets, and glass bottles to public collection points.

And as a country, Germany’s philosophies do not sit alone, with the likes of Austria embracing similar producer responsibility models.

Austria also directs efforts into education, with many teaching materials such as comics and colouring books serving to educate children from a young age on the importance and necessity of recycling.

Similarly, a look at Swiss-policy can also quickly shame the UK’s, with an introduction of 3,000 new plastic bottle collection points at the beginning of the year taking Switzerland’s total to 53,000 across the country.

On average, 82% of PET plastic bottles are recycled in Switzerland annually, a figure which has remained stable for a decade.

At present just 43% of the 13 billion plastic bottles sold each year in the UK are recycled, and 700,000 become litter each day.

What does it mean?

While the United Kingdom claims mediocrity in recycling leagues, it finishes sixth in the richest countries of the world by population table, pipped to fifth by - Germany.

While our European cousins prosper when it comes to recycling, it is easy to understand worries that UK Government commitments are little more than lip service, and in a backdrop of Brexit and Covid-19, may become targets simply not pursued.

But, while Germany’s efforts are formidable, their meagre 3% recycling rate prior to one policy change should provide both encouragement and optimism that improvements are not impossible.

If you are a business owner looking to improve your own recycling rate, contact licenced waste management company, CheaperWaste, for a free quote.

CheaperWaste employ a minimal landfill mantra, encouraging all customers to reduce their landfill output in a cost-effective manner, through the separation of recyclable materials.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by CheaperWaste .

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