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Recycling: Who really leads the world?

A new report has been published with the aim of overcoming discrepancies in reporting methodology and determining who really leads the world when it comes to recycling, with Wales emerging as one of the world's top three recyclers.

Recycling: Who really leads the world?
News reports put out by the mainstream media often give the impression that some countries are achieving some pretty extraordinary recycling rates. According to some of the most recent headlines, Sweden, for instance, has achieved a 99 per cent rate – but that’s only true if you count combined heat and power energy recovery as a form of recycling.

The variety of ways in which municipal recycling rates are calculated around the world is huge, and so approaching reported data requires many questions to be asked: How much commercial or construction waste is included? How are the inputs to mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plants categorised? How rigorously are rejects removed from the figures? Even within the UK, the four nations now report their recycling on different bases, with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) producing an annual set of figures that allows the results to be compared on an equal footing.

Taking rates at face value, we recently noted, when reporting on the Welsh Government’s latest published rate of 62 per cent, that ‘if Wales was reported as a separate country, it would be the second best recycling nation in Europe, according to reported weight-based rates, behind Germany’s 66.1 per cent’.

But that got us thinking – how do the leading European nations compare with the rest of the world? And what happens to the results if you place them on a more consistent footing? We teamed up with Eunomia Research & Consulting to investigate 'Who really leads the world' at recycling.

Both the OECD and the European Commission produce annual municipal waste and recycling statistics, which eliminate some (but far from all) of the inconsistencies, and these form a good starting point for a world league table. However, there are a few high recyclers that are members of neither organisation – Singapore and Taiwan, for example, report recycling rates above 55 per cent.

Bringing this data together allows us to present a world league table of reported recycling rates, which shows Germany as the world leader on 66 per cent, with Singapore in second place and Wales third – both just tipping 60 per cent. No other part of the UK would currently be in the top 10. The league table is dominated by European nations, while the United States just finds its way into the top 25.

These results only tell the start of the story, though, as they don’t really compare like with like. For example:

  • Some EU nations (e.g. Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany) report metals recovered from incinerator bottom ash as recycled, while others (e.g. Sweden, Slovenia, Switzerland) do not.
  • Germany and Austria both report large amounts of inputs to MBT as recycled or composted, when much of the output is incinerated or landfilled.
  • Singapore’s data includes a substantial amount of non-household waste, such as rubble and industrial slag, which have very high recycling rates. It also counts wood burnt as biomass as recycled.
  • Wales, too, counts recycled rubble collected by local authorities in its totals, and includes a substantial amount of incinerator bottom ash recycled as aggregate.
  • There is considerable variation in the ways in which contamination is assessed. It appears that Slovenia, for example, measures almost all material collected for recycling as recycled, disregarding the impact of contamination. Other countries count material once it has been subject to an initial sort, while others take considerable pains to track material as close as possible to the point of reprocessing.

Taking account of these factors considerably changes the recycling rates reported by the top 10 countries in the chart above. Germany remains in top spot, but is less than two percentage points ahead of Taiwan, which rises to second place, while Wales maintains third place. Singapore drops substantially, but Taiwan and South Korea, with well-established pay-as-you-throw systems, extended producer responsibility and sophisticated recycling auditing, bear up well and occupy second and fourth spots. Belgium and Switzerland move up the chart, while Austria and Slovenia fall – and both drop below 50 per cent recycling.

Recycling: Who really leads the world?

The analysis shows up the vast variations in the ways in which recycling is measured and perhaps the need for greater consistency – but however the statistics are viewed, Wales’s progress in getting to the top handful of countries is extraordinary – and continuing. On the best available data, the country is now Europe’s second leading recycler, and closing in on Germany’s established place at the top of the chart. With a few more years’ progress, Wales could be on top of the world.

The full report, ‘Recycling – who really leads the world?’, can be downloaded right here.

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