Recycling: How We Are Doing As A Global Community

Recycling: Global Report Card

Increased world population and wanton consumerism have led to increased waste. Recycling reduces waste, reduces toxins released into the atmosphere from landfills (by diverting garbage from landfills), lowers the carbon footprint originating from municipalities, households, and industries; and reduces pollution generated in the manufacturing/ packaging of products; as well as reducing the waste generated in the production/ consumption process.

Here are the top 5 countries in the world, in terms of recycling rates-

Which countries recycle the most?

Recycling How We Are Doing As A Global Community
The Green Dot (recycling symbol that originated in Germany)

The top five countries for recycling are Germany, South Korea, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland. Germany gained number one status by implementing what is called the Green Dot initiative. In order to get a green dot on the package, manufacturers have to pay a fee based on the size of the packaging, which is used for recycling. Manufacturers have thereby been encouraged to reduce the volume of packaging and to make packaging more easily recyclable.

Reducing the volume of packaging encourages companies to produce more minimalistic and innovative packaging. Germany also came up with an intricate system of domestic and commercial sorting to make sure that every material is able to be recycled properly. The Green Dot recycling system started in Germany in 1990, and now has spread to 29 countries; 28 European countries and Israel, and includes a partnership with North American countries. The following European (and 1 Asian) nations are the best at recycling in the world today (of the top recycling nations - Germany, Austria, and Belgium use the Green Dot recycling system):

5) SWITZERLAND- The Swiss national character places a high value on order and cleanliness - you can spend a couple of nights in jail simply for taking the recycling out on a wrong day - so it's no surprise they are among the best recyclers in the world. It actually costs a Euro to simply throw your trash away rather than recycle it. The government doesn't just bribe and coerce people to recycle though; there are also bottle banks at every supermarket, and free recycling collections provided to the public throughout the nation. Switzerland is busy creating a culture where it is actively unusual not to recycle.

4) AUSTRIA- Austria has taken a comprehensive approach to encourage its citizens to recycle. The combination of economic incentives, the successful implementation of education and training programs, and memorable advertising campaigns have thoroughly convinced Austrian citizens of the value of recycling; and helped turn Austria into the fourth biggest recycler in the world.

3) BELGIUM- Some people consider Belgium's recycling program to be the best in Europe. The Flemish part of Belgium has the highest waste diversion rate on the continent, with over half of its waste getting recycled or composted. What's more, the Flemish economy has grown significantly since 2000, yet the level of waste generation has remained consistently low; usually, economic growth goes hand in hand with a rise in the production of waste. Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium are three relatively small central European nations that continuously outperform much larger nations when it comes to recycling.

2) SOUTH KOREA- South Korea spends 2% of its GDP on a Green Growth Plan, hoping to deliver environmentally friendly economic prosperity. Its recycling industry is booming, and major companies are on board. Each apartment block has a fastidious recycling system similar to the Swiss model, where recycling is free but merely throwing items in the trash costs you a small amount of money. Wherever you are in the world, it seems economic incentives are an effective way of convincing people to care about recycling.

The #1 country in the world for recycling is GERMANY, recycling over 65% of its recyclable waste!

An example of a city that does an exceptionally good job of recycling is San Francisco, California. San Francisco boasts an incredible >80% rate of diverting waste from landfills. The population of San Francisco tends to be fairly eco-conscious, which is part of the reason people in the city want to keep waste out of landfills as much as possible and make the most out of resources like packaging that ends up harming the environment when not recycled.

San Francisco banned common disposable plastic shopping bags, which often end up in the planet's oceans, in 2007. In 2009, S.F. mandated recycling and composting, imposing a fine for not properly recycling recyclable goods. Since 2019, San Fransisco's Single-Use Foodware Plastics, Toxics and Litter Reduction Ordinance has banned most single-use plastic straws and many single-use plastic accessories. The law also bans the use of toxic fluorinated chemicals in foodware products.S.F.'s plastic and litter reduction law aims to make zero-waste goals a reality and ensures resources are available citywide in hopes of making zero-waste goals attainable.

Green City Times also features other world cities that are internationally recognized for their recycling efforts. Portland, Oregon, and Curitiba, Brazil are two other standout cities in recycling.

Please see: Recycling in Curitiba

and: Green City: Portland

Who Recycles the Worst?

The worst countries worldwide for recycling are Turkey and Chile. Turkey recycles a mere 1% of its total waste. The government places little to no importance on the recycling issue. Chile is known for having a bad infrastructure for waste management, and so a lot of illegal dumping occurs.

Global Recycling Day (@GlbRecyclingDay) | Twitter
Click here to go to the>>> Global Recycling Foundation

 Global Recycling Foundation supports the promotion of recycling, and the recycling industry, across the world to showcase its vital role in preserving the future of the planet.

Our mission is to fund educational and awareness programmes, which focus on the sustainable and inclusive development of recycling, across the world.

“The role of the Foundation is to show the world that Recycling is a collective endeavour, crucial for the future of the planet. No-one can act in isolation and it is imperative we engage the widest population possible, from BIR members to world leaders, businesses to individuals – no matter where they are located. The establishment of the Global Recycling Foundation will underpin this mission, and ensure a global approach, supporting joint initiatives and achieving goals to foster better recycling practices into the future.”
Ranjit S Baxi, Founding President, Global Recycling Foundation

The Global Recycling Foundation will promote and support the global recycling industry in its mission to showcase recycling’s crucial role in preserving the planet’s future. It will do this via fundraising, joint ventures, and our spotlight activity Global Recycling Day.

Everything we do will focus on innovation, education, progress and action.


How Can We Improve Recycling Rates?

One major step many communities, municipalities, and governments worldwide have taken is educating the public about and enforcing recycling standards. Creating a penalty for not recycling is also a tool that can be implemented for increased community recycling. It actually costs you to not recycle, and people are mandated to throw out non-recyclable trash in a special plastic bag, in Switzerland. Examples of cities where you can be fined if you don't recycle include Burlington, VT, Dayton, OH, San Francisco, CA, and Cardiff, Wales.

In Denmark, trash disposal is closely monitored and regulated in order to ensure that maximal recycling is done correctly. Germany issues each household a few different colors/ categories of recycling bins. In 1990, Germany mandated a packaging ordinance that requires domestic manufacturers to be responsible for their own recycling, the aforementioned Green Dot system.

Recycling bins (color coded)

In order to improve recycling rates, it is important to make recycling receptacles ubiquitously available. This means both installing public receptacles, and providing recycling services free of charge to residential areas. Most people will choose to recycle when it presents no apparent added effort or cost.

In addition, there are ways to optimize the recycling process; such as a color-coded bin system to help with recycling sorting (one color for recyclable bottles, one for cans, one for plastics, one for paper products, etc...).When people have to overthink about which item goes in which bin, sometimes they tend to give up, and either throw recyclable material in a random bin or just throw it in the trash.

Alternatively, there is the zero-sort recycling system (or, single-stream recycling  - a system in which recyclable glass, metal, plastic, paper, and other containers, are mixed in the recycling truck or the recycling center). Zero-sort recycling infrastructure has higher up-front capital costs and higher ongoing processing costs. However, zero-sort recycling avoids the problem of incorrect items (or just trash) placed in incorrect bins, which creates increased costs in the recycling process.

Zero-sort recycling also lowers recycling collection costs and generally results in an increase in potentially recyclable material making it into the recycling stream, as opposed to just ending up as garbage in a landfill. In fact, zero-sort facilities are a great way to avoid the apparent added effort of having to think about sorting your trash. Many people believe that, in general, most glass, paper, and plastic are recyclable, and everything else is probably landfilling material. With zero-sort recycling, there is no added thought required. Some or all of these measures to help streamline the recycling process can be implemented (after being successfully legislated) by municipalities, local, state, regional, or even national governments; communities, towns cities, and even entire countries.

Most importantly, city officials need to evaluate the needs of their city. If it is particularly windy, they may need to provide covered bins for residents; if there is constant illegal dumping, they may need to provide more accessible recycling and trash centers. The needs of each community vary so widely that it is impossible to prescribe one generic solution. The important takeaway is that we all need to be doing something as a global community, to increase environmental welfare, and recycling is probably the easiest place to start.

For information on an innovative recycling program starting now in the UK, please see:

Recycling FAQ

  • 1. Which countries recycle the best?

    Germany, South Korea, Austria, Belgium, and Switzerland

  • 2. What is the #1 measure a country can take to improve recycling rates?

    In order to improve recycling rates, it is important to make recycling receptacles ubiquitously available.

  • 3. What additional measures can a country take to improve recycling rates?

    Creating a penalty for not recycling is a tool that can be implemented to increase community recycling.