How 5 Countries Do Recycling A Little Differently
When you think about recycling, you can probably remember some of the basic rules. In most cases, paper and aluminum cans are recyclable. Cardboard is recyclable. Certain types of plastic are accepted, too, although the rules can differ quite a lot depending on where you live. But if you’ve taken a deep dive into your hometown’s recycling rules, you might know that things can get a lot more complicated than that.
It isn’t always easy to tell what’s recyclable at first glance, especially when you move to a new town or city. Recycling rules differ from place to place, sometimes by a lot. And when you start looking at how different countries recycle, well, things can begin to get a bit wild.
Here are some interesting facts about how recycling differs around the world.
Germany: Don’t Even Think About Throwing That Bottle Away
Globally, around 19% of all trash is recycled. But between countries, that percentage varies. The world leader in recycling is Germany. Germany recycles about two-thirds of all its residential waste (for comparison, the US recycles about a third) thanks to the development of good recycling infrastructure. There are a variety of bins in most public places, allowing for trash to be sorted. But all of that should be familiar to a traveler from another country–after all, it isn’t a stretch to think about separating one’s trash. However, one particular quirk of German recycling might catch a foreign visitor off-guard: the Pfand.
Imagine it’s a hot summer day in Berlin, and you need something cool to drink. You pop into a local convenience store and buy a plastic bottle of cola with a price tag of 2 Euros. You bring the cola to the register, and the cashier rings you up. Your final bill is 2.25 Euros. Now, if you’re from the United States, you might think that difference is just added sales tax, but Germany, like many other countries in Europe and globally, includes a sales tax into the price. There should be no surprises at checkout.
So what gives? What’re that extra 25 cents for?
Well, that 25 cent deposit is called a Pfand. ‘Pfand’ translates to English as ‘Pledge’ and is applied to almost every single-use plastic bottle you can buy (and some of the glass bottles too, like beer bottles). When in doubt, you can tell which bottles are part of the Pfand program by looking for this sticker, usually found on the label.
If you see this symbol, it means that you definitely should not throw that bottle away because if you return it, you’ll be rewarded with those 25 cents back. The system is so universal in Germany that you don’t even have to take the bottle back to the same place you bought it. Because you can pop into any convenience store and give the bottle to the cashier, and they’ll give you your 25 cents back. Most grocery stores even have automatic scanning machines, which detect the sticker on your empty bottles and print you a little voucher to get money off your next grocery shop.
You can even donate your Pfand. Bottle collecting machines are set up at public places like train stations and airports, where you can get rid of your empty bottles and donate those 25 cents to charity. Everybody wins.
But if you do throw away your bottles, you might find that people look at you oddly. After all, you’re not only littering. You’re also throwing away free money.
Japan: No Labels Allowed
When was the last time you had to remove the label from something before recycling it? It’s probably been a long time. That’s because paper-based labels can usually stay on when you recycle items like bottles and tins. However, did you know that the shrink-wrapped plastic label often found on squeezy sports bottles needs to be removed before recycling? These labels cause havoc for recycling centers because the infrared scanners cannot detect the material underneath the label.
The problem is many manufacturers don’t include a perforated strip down the edge of the plastic label, so they’re often very difficult to remove by hand. But the folks over in Japan have come up with a clever solution to this problem — by enforcing peel-off labels that can be easily removed and binned separately to the bottle. Japan’s recycling rate, about 20%, is low compared to other industrialized nations, although still higher than the global average of 13%. But the country is looking to narrow the gap with recycling initiatives that encourage separating trash at home.
And we mean really separating that trash at home.
The Japanese recycling system relies on the proper sorting of trash, with ten different categories of recyclable material. Each town has its own recycling guides, and these guides are often printed up in guest houses so that travelers know how to sort their trash. Burnable trash has to be separated from recyclable glass, plastic bottles, cans, and kitchen waste.
But it’s not just a matter of tossing things into bins. Japanese home recycling guides are notoriously detailed, with instructions for what needs to be removed, washed, or even crushed beforehand.
For example, when recycling a plastic water bottle (maybe the same plastic bottle you would have turned in for 25 cents in Germany), you’ll have to first remove the bottle cap, then remove the plastic label, then rinse the bottle and empty it, and then finally, twist and crush the bottle before putting it in the recycling bin.
Thankfully, the Japanese government is making it a little easier to recycle plastic bottles. A new law allows producers to sell condiments and beverages in bottles without any labels at all. Currently, this law only applies to products sold in cases, like a six-pack of beer or a box of 10 sodas. The information gets printed outside the case, and the bottles inside remain label-free and ready for easy recycling.
Sweden: Turning Waste Into Energy
Many countries use recycled products for manufacturing, turning one household’s trash into an entire country’s treasure, but Sweden kicks it up a notch. In Sweden, products aren’t just recycled into other products. Trash is actually turned into energy.
According to the country’s official figures, only 1% of Sweden’s trash gets sent to landfill. Another 49% gets recycled the traditional way. But that remaining 50% gets burned and made into energy that helps power the whole country. Four tons of waste produce energy equivalent to about a ton of oil, 1.6 tons of coal, or five tons of wood waste.
And while trash doesn’t make up a large percentage of Sweden’s power sources (83% of Sweden’s power is generated by hydroelectric and nuclear energy, and another 7% comes from wind energy), energy from the trash can help heat 1.25 million apartments during the long Scandinavian winter, or provide electricity for up to 680,000 homes. Definitely nothing to sneeze at.
Of course, burning anything for fuel produces carbon dioxide emissions, and burning trash isn’t exactly recycling it. Trash burning is not a renewable form of energy, but the Swedish government doesn’t plan to rely on waste forever. According to the country, Sweden’s waste-to-energy scheme is a short-term solution. In the meantime, they’re also ramping up their recycling program and increasing wind and solar capacity. The country says it’s on track to get 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2040 and become net-zero greenhouse gas emitters by 2045.
Sweden also points out that landfills produce vast amounts of toxic greenhouse gases like methane. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so reducing the amount of methane released into the atmosphere helps with the climate crisis. Another bonus is that trash is less carbon-intensive than coal, so while energy created from trash isn’t as clean as renewable energy, it’s still a more efficient use of waste than letting it decompose into methane while also burning coal.
No replacement for good, clean, renewable energy, though.
Switzerland: You Pollute, You Pay
Another country that’s taking a slightly different approach to reducing pollution is Switzerland. Switzerland takes personal responsibility seriously, which means individuals are responsible for the waste they produce in this country. Each person in Switzerland is taxed based on the amount of waste they personally produce, a method known as the “polluter pays” system.
The way this works is that only official bags can be used for household trash, and the price of each bag is based on its volume. That means that if you generate more waste, you’ll end up paying more for official trash bags, and if you create less household trash, you’ll also be paying less. Recycling is also mandatory, with a hefty fine of up to CHF 300 (~330 USD) for anyone who doesn’t comply.
This system was put into place to combat the fact that Switzerland produces one of the highest amounts of waste per capita in the world. The country consumes three times as much plastic waste as its European neighbors but recycles 30% less. Since 2000, the Swiss government has stopped burying trash in landfills and instead took a leaf out of Sweden’s book, burning excess waste for energy. But when it comes to overall recycling efficiency, the country is still lagging behind leaders like Norway and Sweden or other high-recycling countries like Germany, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and Spain.
Part of the reason for this is that Switzerland is not a member of the European Union and isn’t obligated to follow EU regulations on plastic waste. But the country is hoping to cut down on its plastic waste and increase recycling through the policies mentioned above. By making pollution more expensive, Switzerland hopes to encourage people to recycle more and save money while they’re at it.
South Korea: Bye Bye Colored Bottles
South Korea is one of the greenest countries in Asia, with a municipal recycling rate of 52%. The South Korean government has been laying the groundwork for proper waste disposal since 1986, when it made waste management part of the law. As early as 1992, South Korea was already making citizens pay for the amount of trash they generated by mandating that rubbish would only be collected in official bags priced by volume, similar to Switzerland’s system.
The country also has a robust trash separation system. Citizens have to separate their trash clearly into recyclables and non-recyclables or face fines up to one million won (~840 USD). South Korea collects not only paper, plastic, and aluminum but also organic food waste. Individuals are responsible for removing anything inedible from the food waste bags, like bones, seeds, and shells, because municipal food waste is converted into animal feed.
The country has separate collection bins for food waste, general waste, paper, plastic, and aluminum, but also specific bins for vinyl (as well as single-use plastic bags and plastic wrappers), PET bottles, styrofoam, metals, and glass bottles. And recently, the country has decided to tackle the production of hard-to-recycle items, like colored plastic.
As of December 25, 2019, South Korea no longer allows the sale of PVC plastic (which is hard to recycle), colored bottles, and adhesive labels that are hard to remove (since this makes recycling more difficult). Due to the lack of substitutes, PVC is still allowed under some circumstances, but colored plastic? No way.
The country hopes that the new law will reduce its plastic waste production by half, and double recycling rates by 2030. The government is also working on cutting down on single-use plastics at all levels in society.
A Greener World 🌍
These are only a few of the different approaches countries are taking to recycling. Managing waste is a global issue, but not all countries generate waste in the same way. Each country has to decide how to recycle based on its cultural circumstances and citizens’ habits.
Access to proper infrastructure massively affects how much different countries recycle, so assisting developing countries in improving their infrastructure will also help them generate cleaner energy sources and keep waste out of landfills.
A single article like this could never touch on the entire breadth and scope of global recycling, so if you’re interested, feel free to discover more global recycling trends yourself. For example, did you know that European countries also recycle used textiles, like clothes and shoes that can’t be worn anymore? Or that Canada collects products like tires and cigarette butts and uses them to produce things like plastic and asphalt? Canada’s cigarette butt collection gets an honorable mention here, as they’ll send you a special container and free shipping label upon request to collect cigarette waste.
Different recycling guidelines for each local authority within each country can be confusing. So be sure to refresh yourself on the rules whenever you are. If you’re in the UK, the good news is we’ve done the research for you, so you can use Scrapp to get local recycling guidance in the UK. We’re looking to support more countries very soon!
While recycling differences might be confusing at first, all of these approaches ultimately have the same goal–a greener and more sustainable world for all.
By Elisa A. Bonnin.