The Best and Worst Countries at Recycling in Europe

Germany consistently tops the recycling list, while countries including Turkey and Malta languish at the bottom.

26.09.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Javier Huedo on Unsplash
Photo by Javier Huedo on Unsplash

As it’s World Recycling Week, Global Shakers has had a look into the countries that have done the most — and least — to limit the impact of their populations’ consumption habits on the world.

The lack of standardised data makes global comparisons difficult, but for Europe, information on municipal waste (waste produced by houses) is drawn from European Environment Agency’s research for 2018.

This is important as EU regulation requires countries in the bloc to be able to re-use and recycle at least 50% of the municipal paper, scrap metal, plastic and glass waste generated by December 31, 2020.

The website Global Citizen is quick to note that municipal waste accounts for just 10% of the total waste produced worldwide — with other waste types including industrial, agricultural, medical, radioactive or sewage.

Nevertheless, it serves as a useful barometer of success. This is more so than national recycling rates, which can be misunderstood or misleading: Sweden was recently feted for recycling all of its waste, before it emerged that it classifies incineration as a form of recycling.





Municipal recycling rate 2016: 66%
Municipal recycling rate 2004: 56%

Germany is renowned as a world leader in recycling, addressing 66% of its municipal waste.

Global Citizen explains that the country has gone to considerable lengths to standardise colour-coded recycling containers, and that many Germans receive a sense of civic pride out of contributing to a culture of environmental sustainability.

However, Die Welt notes that statistics may be slightly misleading, with numbers on recycling rates based on the amount of plastic waste collected, rather than the amount of plastics finally recycled.



Municipal recycling rate 2016: 58%
Municipal recycling rate 2004: 20%

The country has undergone a huge change, from a 20% municipal recycling rate in 2004 to a 58% rate in 2016.

This transformation is present within that the city’s capital, Ljubljana. Fifteen years ago, all of the capital’s waste went to landfill, but by 2025, at least 75% will be recycled.

A Guardian story explains that everything began with roadside collection for paper, glass and packaging, before collecting biodegradable waste door to door, eventually implementing a separate collection of biowaste.

Perhaps most importantly, things that aren’t broken are reused. Items are checked, cleaned and then sold at low prices from a waste recycling facility. Municipal buildings all also use toilet rolls made from recycled milk and juice packaging.



Municipal recycling rate 2016: 58%
Municipal recycling rate 2004: 57%

Austria has long been known as the ‘paper recycling champion,’ given 99% of people in the country at least ‘occasionally’ separate paper from other recycling waste.

Recycling is coordinated by the ARA waste management and recycling group, and there is reportedly particularly good coordination between municipal and private waste management.

Vienna has also been lauded for being one of the few capital cities to manage its residual waste entirely within city limits, although it relies heavily on incineration.






Municipal recycling rate 2016: 7%
Municipal recycling rate 2004: 6%

Malta’s municipal recycling rate is stuck at 7%, while 83% of waste is sent to landfill — providing the country with both the lowest recycling rate and the highest landfilling rate in the EU.

There are clearly problems on a national level. Although the country recently introduced a wave of reforms, including a separate collection of organic waste and fines for people not separating their waste, the amount of waste being generated per capita is also growing — currently sitting at 615kg, which is higher than the EU average of 480kg.



Municipal recycling rate 2016: 9%
Municipal recycling rate 2004: 1%

According to Oya Guzel of Mind Your Waste foundation, Turkey produces around 31 million tonnes of waste annually. She told Straits Times that it has a target of 35% recycling within five years — “which is also low, but we believe progress can be made.”

61% of the non-recycled waste in the country is currently burned to produce electricity, while 28% is added to landfill.

Straits Times notes that the problem is deep within society, as every Turkish citizen uses an average of 440 plastic bags a year — with plastic bags having an average lifespan of 12 minutes before they are discarded in the trash.

Small change may be on the horizon: The country has just launched a zero waste project, led by First Lady Emine Erdoğan, and introduced a fee for every plastic bag sold.



Municipal recycling rate 2016: 13%
Municipal recycling rate 2004: 1%

Although Romania’s recycling rate has clearly improved over the 12-year period, it has essentially remained frozen for the past eight years.

According to Romanian business magazine Govnet, this is partly because of delays in implementing separate recycling stations across the country, and partly because the packaging waste recycling market is “stuck” while it waits for clarity from the government on how recycling systems will work.

Romania’s Environment Ministry recently announced plans to give government grants to recycling companies to increase recycling rates.


And on a global scale….

South Korea has been lauded for its approach to food waste, increasing recycling from 2% to 95%.

World Economic Forum reports that the country generates more than 130kg of food waste per capita each year, more than Europe’s rate of 95kg. But in 2005, the government made it illegal to dump food in landfill, and in 2013 made food waste recycling compulsory. People have to pay $6 a month for special biodegradable bags, which funds 60% of the scheme, and pay based on how much food they dispose.

Chile, on the other hand, has a lot of work to do. Chileans produce a kilo of garbage per person per day, and at least 80% do not recycle regularly.

Hernán Inssen, general manager of Chilean recycling company Hope Chile, emphatically told Chile Today that Chileans “do not” recycle.

He adds that many people trying to recycle breach the delivery format, mixing non-recyclables or following bad practices that undermine other efforts. “We are at least 20 years behind in infrastructure, collection, and implementation of waste management plans,” he said.

Join the discussion

Leave a Reply

Related Shakers

Toufik Hakkar


Javad Owji

Ministry of…

Related Shakers