The World’s Recycling Habits


Car battery with green recycle sign.The topic of recycling has certainly been gaining momentum in recent years as the debate continues to be pushed into the mainstream. While the concept has been around for quite some time, initially as a way to save companies (and consumers) money by re-using old materials, recycling has now taken on a new purpose: helping keep litter out of landfills and out of our world’s oceans.

Over the past few decades, more and more research has begun revealing just how much waste our consumerism lifestyles are leading to, and this has led to a more open discussion on the topic of recycling. Questions are now being raised like, “How can we recycle things best?” “What are the most important materials we need to be recycling?” and “How can a consumer get involved?”

Chances are, you found yourself thinking about this topic too, and perhaps even asking one of the above questions exactly. But whether you’re well-versed in recycling or just dipping your toes in the water to learn more about it, this guide will prove informative and perhaps even inspirational.

We’ll start by covering some of the processes practices globally around the world, and then we’ll begin looking closer at some of the most popular recycling practices in different regions, and then even drill down to the community level. When it’s all said and done, you’ll know more than you ever have about the global recycling trend, and you might even have the knowledge to create a recycling drive in your own home town and do your part to keeping our world clean for future generations.

Let’s begin.

Global Overview

If you’ve ever taken the time to sort paper from plastic or rinse out your glass bottles so they could be placed in the recycling bin instead of tossed in the garbage can, you may have asked yourself: “Is this really worth it?”

Switzerland leads the world with recycling habits, recycling about 52% of all of the waste they produce. Right behind them is Austria at 49.7%, shortly followed by Germany at 48% and then the Netherlands at 46%.

Norway is next on the list at a 40% recycling rate, followed by Sweden at 34% and then the United States at around 31.5%.

Your Garbage Has A Fancy Name

Car battery with green recycle sign.Municipal Solid Waste, or MSW for short, is the official name given to the trash we produce as a society. MSW includes all the common items we use and throw away, like product packaging, grass clippings, clothing, bottles, furniture, newspapers, paint, food scraps, appliances, and more. MSW is produced by homes, schools, businesses, and hospitals alike.

What Are We Wasting?

Car battery with green recycle sign.The majority of our waste is paper-based products (about 28.5% of everything we throw away). We also waste a large amount of food scraps at 13.9%, followed closely by yard trimmings at 13.4%. The good news is that all of these things are compostable or biodegradable. The bad news is that, when not wasted properly, they can still stick around in landfills and polute our waters for years to come.

The rest of our waste mainly consists of plastics (12.4%), metals (9%), rubber leather and textiles (8.4%), wood (6.4%), and other items (3.4%).

Contrary to what you may think, the biggest problem is not how much we are wasting, it’s really the way that we are going about it. The majority of what we waste are organic materials that could be recovered and properly recycled. While most countries have programs in place to help do so, in the US alone, more than 28% of paper waste still goes unrecovered and ends up in landfills.

Collection Processes

There are countless means for collecting recyclable materials around the world.

Curb-Side Recycling:

Car battery with green recycle sign.One of the most popular means of collecting recyclable materials is through curb-side collection programs where residents are responsible for sorting their own recyclables out and placing them into the bin.

At the collection plant, the waste is then sorted into different materials and sent to buy-back programs or composting programs. As one example, many companies in the world re-use textiles, process them, and turn them into new materials. Some fabrics and types of plastics can be re-manufactured into fabrics for carpet tiles and clothing. Plastics can also be turned into many other materials for furniture, coverings, and other consumables.

What exactly you can put into a recycling bin varies by location, but some of the items you can recycle include:

  • Office paper and cardboard
  • Magazines and newspapers
  • Books without covers
  • Phonebooks
  • Pizza boxes without food
  • Milk and juice cartons
  • Aluminum (pots, pans, foil, cans, trays, etc. without food)
  • Metal cutlery, pots and pans
  • Empty steel cans
  • Empty aerosol cans without a plastic nozzle
  • Clear, green, and amber glass bottles and jars
  • Rigid plastic packaging with bottles and containers

Waste Recovery:

So, what happens to items that can be recycled but end up in the trash can? There are some places that go through the process of trying to recover recyclable waste before it can end up in a landfill. Most of these programs are ran by corporations themselves who either manufacture products using recycled material or find recyclable materials that they can, in turn, sell to companies for re-manufacturing.

These companies can’t save all of the recyclable waste that gets thrown into the garbage, but they can make a difference. There are also many cross-industry groups who corporations often collaborate with to get recovered materials back into production. Some of the organizations who specialize in waste recovery include:

  • Paper Recovery Alliance
  • Food Waste Reduction Alliance
  • Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in the U.K.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Challenge

Volunteer Take Backs:

There are recycling programs in the USA, Canada, the UK and abroad that allow consumers to send in eligible items for recycling. Some organizations run recycling drop-off programs, like bins at the grocery store where you can return your plastic shopping bags.

There are also collection centers for textiles (clothing, etc.) and some recycling programs in public locations to encourage people to drop-off some other used items. In the UK especially, a toothbrush recycling program is rather popular, with companies like Preserve allowing people to send used toothbrushes into their partner, Kinetic Enterprises, who will recycle them. In the USA and elsewhere, Colgate has partnered with TerraCycle to encourage people to recycle their toothbrushes and empty toothpaste tubes.

Similar programs are run all over the world, but many people aren’t aware of them. Many common, everyday consumable items are part of potential recycling programs, but it requires a person to either find a drop-off location in their area or mail the item into the recycling company.

In either case, this extra step discourages many consumers from participating, although it has been shown that drop-off centers at popular locations that are conveniently accessible (such as grocery stores) are more likely to encourage recycling than a mail-in program.

North America

The USA and Canada alike are the two leading countries in North America encouraging green living through recycling programs and compositing initiatives. This is happening at the local, state, and federal levels through some government-backed programs and also with volunteer-run organizations.

The Best Recycling Programs in North America

Car battery with green recycle sign.In the United States and Canada, some cities really stand out for having stellar recycling programs. Here’s a look:

  1. San Francisco in California, USA leads the region an 83.8 out of 100 score on the “green meter” determined by various factors.
  2. Vancouver, Canada is next at 81.3!
  3. New York City’s recycling programs puts them in third place with a score of 79.2.
  4. Seattle, Washington in the USA is right behind them at 79.1.
  5. Denver, Colorado (USA) has a score of 73.5, putting the capitol city in fifth place.
  6. Boston has a 72.6 score.
  7. Los Angeles allows California to make it on the top 10 list twice with a score of 72.5.
  8. America’s capitol, Washington, D.C. is also on the list with a score of 71.4.
  9. Toronto puts Canada on the list again with a score of 68.4.

Minneapolis makes the list in tenth place with a score of 67.7.

US Colleges Leading Recycling Programs

Car battery with green recycle sign.College of the Atlantic became the first college in 2007 to go carbon neutral and worked to lead other colleges down a similar path. Warren Wilson College, for instance, is almost entirely self-supporting through managed forests and organic gardens. Evergreen State College is encouraging the use of electric vehicles and buys their energy to run the campus from only 100% clean sources. They also teach students about organic gardening and “living green” through composting and recycling.

The Numbers

  • 254 Million Tons: That’s how much garbage Americans alone produced in 2013 according to the official report.
  • 87 Million Tons: Not all of it went to waste, though. Around 87 million tons of the MSW produced was recycled in 2013.

  • 34.3 Percent: This gave Americans an average recycling rate of 34.3%.

  • The Average American’s Contribution: On average, an individual will produce around 4.40 pounds of waste each day. Out of this, around 1.51 pounds will be recycled or composted. Composting, recycling, and waste prevention are all encouraged practices to help reduce the amount of waste we produce.

South America

As a whole, South American accounts for around 16% of the world’s solid waste, which equates to more than 120 million tons each and every year. Most of this waste comes from megalopolises like São Paulo and Buenos Aires. Every day, these cities product more than 10,000 tons of garbage.

Car battery with green recycle sign.In North America and around the world, the only plastic most people associate with money is credit cards. But thanks to the Plastic Bank, established in 2014, South Americans are able to spend their plastic waste as though it were real money.

This movement was started to help protect wildlife, and it was also motivated by the need to reduce poverty across the continent. Reseachers have long been aware of the interesting relationship of waste and economical standing. Typically, especially in South America, people who are less fortunate are more affected by trash, even though they produce less of it and generally recycle more.

It’s this inverse relationship that led to the founding of the Plastic Bank that allows people in South America to exchange plastic litter their have collected for goods and services.

The Plastic Bank sends the litter it collects off to manufacturers who use it to make eco-friendly products rather than producing even more synthetic materials in its place. The whole thing began thanks to the idea of David Katz who has visited countless beaches around the world, many being in poorer areas where he claimed that there is usually more plastic to be seen than sand.

Car battery with green recycle sign.Katz has set out an ambitious goal to decrease poverty and clean up plastic waste from the world’s oceans by 2035. While it’s a worth cause, it certainly won’t be simple considering that the world is littered with centuries-old plastic. And, the World Bank estimates that the annual amount being dumped will climb to 2.42 billion tons by 2025.

This news doesn’t seem to have discouraged the Plastic Bank or its contributors in any way, though, and this is far from the only initiative taking place in South America. Countless other programs have also been setup that work to increase recycling rates and ultimately protect the locals (animal and human alike) from the build-up of waste.

Car battery with green recycle sign.When it comes to the overall picture of recycling in South America, the governments are trying to take a more organized and systematic approach. After 27 years, Bogeta is one example of this shift. Waste pickers in Bogeta, Columbia have been working for nearly thirty years to be recognized and rewarded just as private sector companies have been for some time now, and they finally have reached victory.

Bogeta recently announced that individual waste pickers are now part of the system and will be paid per tonne of waste they collect, just like all private sector collectors. This is a huge step forward for Bogeta, and they’re helping to lead the way in all of South America, which is good news since the success of South America’s future recylcing programs rely on such labor-intensive processes.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has been working hard in recent years to improve their recycling efforts. Here’s a look at their current statistics.

Recycling Statistics:

  • The recycling rate for households in the UK was 45.2% in 2016, which increased slightly from 2015.

  • They have an EU target to reach a 50% recycling rate by 2020.
  • Biodegradeable Municipal Waste (BMW) sent to landfills in the UK has remained study at around 7.7 million tons, which is about 22% of the baseline that was set in 1995.

  • The UK is on track to continue meeting the EU target of having a BMW amount 35% or less than the 1995 baseline by 2020.

  • In 2015, around 64.7% of packaging waste was recycling in the United Kingdom, a number that grew to 71.4% in the year 2016. This exceeds their EU target to recover/recycle at least 60% of packaging waste.

  • Commercial and industrial waste (C&I) produced by the United Kingdom has continued to drop. In 2014, the figure was 41.9 million tons. In 2016, the number dropped thanks to joint efforts to decrease waste nationally.

England Leads for C&I

Car battery with green recycle sign.Despite the United Kingdom’s overall rate of commercial and industrial waste falling in 2016, previous figures found that England was the highest contributor for this figure. In 2014, out of the 41.9 million tons of waste overall, England produced 32.8 million tons of it. In 2016, their contribution only fell slightly, to 32.2 million tons.

For this reason, England has become the primary focal point for many research pieces that are looking into UK recycling programs. In reports released as recently as March 2018, BBC News reported that all 14 million homes in England saw a recent drop in their recycling rates, despite the progress they had been making in 2016.

Experts on the matter warn that this means the United Kingdom is likely to miss their 2020 target of recycling 50% of household waste (set by the EU). However, the Local Government Association says that England’s recycling rates have still quadrupled compared to data collected just ten years ago.

Out of all of the areas in the region, the North East end has seen the largest drop in recycling rates. This has led volunteer groups to making up the difference, clearing waste on beaches and streets. Hartlepool Council saw the biggest drop in recycling, but they say they are “working hard” to reverse the trend.

Future Targets

Car battery with green recycle sign.While reaching future targets requires citizens and companies take action now, the United Kingdom continues to lead the world forward by setting tough recycling goals for itself. In addition to the EU targets covered above, Prime Minister Theresa May said in January 2018 that their new environmental policy will try to eradicate all plastic waste in the United Kingdom by 2042.

This proposal has led to countless suggestions to help put the UK on track for meeting these targets. When it comes to ending plastic waste, Environment Secretary Michael Gove suggested banning plastic drinking straws.

The foundation for meeting targets like this one, however, should not be based on banning everyday items but rather focused on finding environmentally friendly alternatives–like simpler recycling programs that encourage consumers to participate and biodegradable materials that can be used in place of these common products.

With this in mind, it has been suggested that governments focus more on running recycling programs at the local level and then, at the higher level, focus on encouraging corporations to do their part by supporting such programs and using recycled materials in their manufacturing processes.


As the world’s leader in recycling, the rest of the globe has a lot to learn about Germany’s recycling practices.

Car battery with green recycle sign.Perhaps the first lesson that other countries can learn from Germany’s top recycling strategy is that organization is key to making the system work. Wheras in America and many other places, all recyclable materials are generally thrown into a single blue bin, in Germany, the sorting happens at the source.

Black bins are reserved for general waste while yellow bins are for plastic, blue are for paper, and brown are for composting (food waste). White bins are for clear glass while green are for colored glass.

It might sound like citizens have to go through a lot of fuss, but it’s actually become second-nature, even to transplants who are now in the habit of seperating the foil from the cardboard as they rinse out their yogurt cups and prepare them for recycling.

Car battery with green recycle sign.While other countries are focusing their efforts on collecting waste that would otherwise end up polluting our lands and oceans, Germany also places huge emphasis on composting, which collects food waste.

Every community in Germany has been required to collect compost since 2015. It’s used for organic fertilizer and for biogas plants so that this waste can directly contribute to the growing of a greener world. The country all together produces about 10,000,000 tons of it each year.

Car battery with green recycle sign.As recycling continues to be integrated into the day-to-day routines of Germans, it’s clear that Germany is likely to remain ahead-of-the-curve for many years to come as they continue to set the standard for the rest of the world.

For communities trying to figure out the secret to their plan’s success, first and foremost: they used a smart color-coding system that’s ubiquitos. Secondly, they put recycling bins everywhere to make it the super easy choice (train stations, coffee shops, community centers, etc. etc.).


Switzerland is known for scoring high on the list for things like high living standards and innovation, but they also are nearing the top of the list for waste generation.

Most Waste Produced

Car battery with green recycle sign.Every year, they generate more than 1,540 pounds of waste per capita, making them one of the highest producers of waste in the world according to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and the European Environment Agency.

In the past 25 years, the amount of waste that Switzerland is producing has tripled. In the past 50 years, the waste production has increased by an astonishing 350%.

There is a well-developed recycling service in place, but far too many recyclables still end up in the waste bin.

The Way Forward

Car battery with green recycle sign.Reports are now starting to suggest that perhaps the greenest way to move forward is for the country to combine their garbage incineration efforts with their energy production efforts.

By changing policy to increase the number of recycleable materials being re-used and also working to use garbage as fuel for the country, Switzerland has a very green future ahead.


Car battery with green recycle sign.Australia might be seperated from the world thanks to the beautiful ocean waters that surround it, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t contributing to the world’s waste buildup. Luckily, being a small continent that’s directly affected by ocean pollution (thanks to their 360-degree coastline), Australians work to do their part when it comes to recycling.

In all, it is estimated that marine waste (which is mostly plastic) kills more than 100,000 mammals and a million sea birds every year.

As of now, Australians top the list of waste producers around the world. Each year, the entire country produces around 41 million tons of waste, which equates to about 1.9 tons per individual.

  • Every year, Australians use more than 3 billion aluminium cans each and every year.
  • Aluminium and steel items are 100% recylable and they also require less energy to produce compared to virgin materials.
  • An Australian can offset the carbon footprint of a 10km journey (in the average-sized car) by recycling just six aluminum cans. Or, you can think of it in terms of a 25km train ride or a17km bus ride.
  • Every year, Australians also use millions of tons of paper.
  • Currently, the country recycles about 87% of the paper and cardboard products that are used, putting near the top of the worldwide list for doing so.
  • For every tone of paper recycled, Australians save around 13 trees.
  • Recycling one plastic water bottle in Australia saves enough energy to power a computer for 25 minutes!
  • Recycling one glass jar can save enough energy to power a fluorescent bulb for 20 hours or a 100-watt light buld for four hours.

Australia also puts an emphasis on organic waste that can be composted in order to help stop the production of more greenhouse gases. However, just under half (about 47%) of Australian households contribute to the recycling of organic materials.

The Landfills

LandfillsYou might know Australia for its beautiful scenery, but the locals know it for something else too. Australia’s landfill problem is big, and it’s only growing. It’s a topic of special prominence in Victoria and other densely populated areas.

In order to help fight the reality that landfills are becoming such a huge percentage of Australia’s limited land, most states have introduced levies to help improve recycling rates. NSW, for instance, charges a fee of $133.10 per ton of waste. Victoria charges $60.52 per ton of waste. South Australia charges $57 per ton of waste. Western Australia charges $55 per ton of waste.

These fees may be helping incenticize recycling efforts, but they aren’t an end-all solution to the problem. Experts suggest Australia will need to begin looking into alternative recycling efforts, perhaps taking notes from Switzerland on their incineration programs.


China is the world’s second-leading economy and one of the largest producers of trash thanks to their industrial economy. Here’s how they’re handling the garbage they produce.

Trash Production

Car battery with green recycle sign.China produces around one-third of the world’s annual trash output, which equates to around 254 million tons of trash each and every year or around a third of a kilogram per person each and every day.

The average Chinese individual dumps only about half as much trash as the average American right now, this figure is projected to keep growing by about 4% every year until it reaches 50% more than its current rate. Urban dwellers in China currently produce around half a tone of garbage annually.

A long time ago, garbage wasn’t too much of a problem for China. It didn’t used to be complicated, after all, since the grocery stores didn’t use fancy packaging and the market didn’t have endless things to buy. There were also hardly any batteries and other hazards to worry about.

Back then, the trash that apartment complexes produced was transporated via tracto to communes outside of the suburbs where it was dumped into early landfills that produced large amounts of methane alongside weeds, rice stalks, and human and animal waste. The methane gas these pits produced were then transported to ring burners inside homes where it was used turned on via spigot and lit with a match.

Today, throwing things away simply isn’t that simple or effective any longer.

Disposal Methods

Car battery with green recycle sign.Between 2000 and 2008, the consumption of packages foods saw a 10.8% increase, with a projected increase of around 74% between 2008 and 2013 as the value of the packaged food industry continues to increase. Today, the consumption of package foods makes up the great majority of China’s economy, and many others around the world.

Add to this statistic the issue of “E-Waste”, that produced by old cell phones, TVs, and other electronics that citizens are throwing out, and garbage is starting to become very complex. This has led to the need for more complex recycling strategies to handle all the different materials.

Today, China is the number one trash producer. And, about 85% of the more than 7 billion tons of trash in the country ends up in landfills, most of which are completely unlicensed dumps that have been built up in the countryside. These dumps have only thin plastic linings under them, if anything at all.

Car battery with green recycle sign.When rain occurs, it builds up bacteria, ammonia, and heavy metals that get into the groundwater, drinking water, and the soil itself, contaminating the land. As the garbage decomposes, it produces carbon dioxide and methane.

Because of these things, it’s apparent that if China doesn’t find an improved trash system (that incorporates recycling) soon, there will be serious health issues as a result. Most experts are suggesting incineration as the solution.

However, the most recent move they have made in response to their trash crisis is to put a ban on the import of foreign waste, which has thrown many other countries for a loop.

The Outlook:

In the future, China aims to incinerate around 30% of their waste. Currently, their recycling programs are fueled by individual collectors. Around 160,000 people in Beijing make their living collecting recyclable materials, going door to door with signs that say, “Sell your rubbish!”

However, China needs to implement a government-backed, organized program if they want to see a positive, green, and clean future for the nation.


As the world’s largest contient, Africa contributes a large amount of waste each year. While a recycling plan is in place, experts are starting to question its long-term sustainability and environmental (and economical) effects.

Surf on…

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