UK recycling rate remains far behind Europe’s best recycling nations

The UK’s municipal recycling rate continues to sit well below those of leading European recycling nations such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, according to municipal waste data from Eurostat, although its recycling rate has improved slightly.

44.1 per cent of the UK’s municipal waste was recycled in 2018, compared to its rate of 43.8 per cent the year before. This rate is below the EU average of 47 per cent including the UK, and 47.4 per cent without the UK.

European Green Deal to include new circular economy planThis data was recorded by the EU’s statistical body, Eurostat, based on municipal waste data submitted by EU member states, countries in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and candidate EU countries. The date relates to 2018 and will be updated in January 2021.

Data submitted by the UK showed the country is still lagging behind in terms of recycling, compared to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, which recycled 67.3, 55.9 and 52.5 per cent of municipal waste in 2018, respectively.

The UK came in 12th for recycling rates in 2018. However, it still came above France (44.0 per cent), Norway (40.7 per cent) and Spain (36.0 per cent).

In terms of total waste generated, Germany tops the board again, with 615 kilogrammes (kg) of waste per capita generated, while the UK generated 463kg per capita in 2018 – and this number has been steadily falling since 2009, when it peaked with 522kg.

However, when it comes to recycling this waste, Germany again sends the most amount of waste to be recycled (305kg per capita). The UK’s recycling rate has remained unchanged from 2017 to 2018, staying at 126kg per capita.

Of all participating countries, Malta sends by far the most waste to landfill (505kg per capita). The UK sent 69kg per capita to landfill in 2018, with this number having fallen from 79kg in 2017. Germany, meanwhile, confidently props up the table, with 5kg per capita having been sent to landfill in 2018.

Total waste sent to landfill across the 27 EU member states plus the UK fell from 56.6 million tonnes in 2017 to 55.5 million tonnes in 2018, while total waste sent for incineration and energy recovery increased slightly from 70.2 million tonnes to 70.4 million tonnes. Without the UK the total sent for energy recovery falls to 58.4 million tonnes.

Despite the marginal improvement in its recycling rate, the UK is still almost certain to miss its 2020 recycling target of 50 per cent, as set across all EU member states.

The EU’s 2018 Circular Economy Package (CEP) – a package of directives setting ambitious targets for municipal waste recycling – has set further targets of 55 per cent by 2025, 60 per cent by 2030 and 65 per cent by 2035. The UK Government recently confirmed that it would be transposing the vast majority of the CEP into UK law, including these targets.

As Brexit looms, however, the risk posed to the UK waste and resources sector is only increasing, with Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations, predicting the UK will fall further behind EU standards and ambition after the UK leaves the EU.

Meanwhile, the EU is forging ahead to achieve its sustainability goals, as outlined in the CEP. Last year, the European Parliament voted to ban problematic single-use plastic products with its Single-Use Plastic Directive, while the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan was unveiled earlier this year.

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic further impacting the UK’s priorities in terms of sustainability and waste, the country’s legislative progress largely ground to a halt during lockdown.

The EU has in the meantime announced a plastics tax, as part of its €750-billion coronavirus recovery fund agreement. The Recovery Plan reaffirms the EU’s commitment to a circular economy transition against the backdrop of the pandemic. 

You can find out more about the EU’s municipal recycling rates on the Eurostat website.