Recycling Around the World: How Does the U.S. Stack Up?

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In the U.S., we are beginning to take our recycling efforts very seriously. U.S. industrial recycling rates have been steadily increasing since the 1960’s. According to the most recent EPA reportsAmerica recycles about 34% of its total recyclable waste.

However, roughly 60% of the recyclable waste generated in the U.S. annually is recycled in the U.S. The rest is exported. The idea is, by exporting, we save room in our own landfills and provide countries such as China with alternatives to cutting down forests and digging new mines. It’s a win-win.

But how do our recycling efforts fare overall compared to our global neighbors in developed countries? Read on to learn more about consumer and industrial recycling around the world:

In Europe

The European Union has mandated targets to recycle 50% of household and similar waste by 2020. Although five countries have already achieved the target, most others will need to make extraordinary efforts to do so before the deadline. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the most recent figures showed an overall 35% of municipal waste was recycled in Europe in 2010 — up considerably from 23% in 2001.

Specifically, the EEA report found:

  • Austria tops the tables with a municipal waste recycling rate of 63%, followed by Germany with 62%, Belgium with 58%, and the Netherlands and Switzerland both with 51%.
  • The United Kingdom and Ireland are among the most rapidly improving recyclers. The UK increased its municipal waste recycling from 12% to 39% between 2001 and 2010, while Ireland raised recycling rates from 11% to 36% over the same period.  The majority of recycling in the United Kingdom is handled by authorities. They institute incentives in order to encourage recycling. For example, a landfill tax is charged on top of normal landfill fees to encourage businesses and local authorities to recycle, reduce, and reuse.
  • Bulgaria and Romania win the uncoveted award for the worst recycling rates in Europe. In order to meet the EU’s target by 2020, these countries must increase recycling by more than 4% per year during this decade – something which no country managed to do between 2001 and 2010.

“In a relatively short time, some countries have successfully encouraged a culture of recycling… But others are still lagging behind, wasting huge volumes of resources.” EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade


Recycling in Japan is a $360 billion dollar industry.  In 2000, Japan enacted The Fundamental Law for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society, to serve as the basis for a comprehensive and systematic approach to waste and recycling. It was followed by a number of other new recycling laws covering specific areas such as construction materials, automobiles, and personal computers.

Japan was one of the first countries to get into recyclable and biodegradable plastics in a big way. PET (polyethylene terephthalate resin) bottles are routinely collected and recycled into high-quality polyester or new bottles.  (Asahi Breweries has even dressed some of its employees in uniforms made from recycled plastic bottles.)  Japan currently recycles about 76% of its plastic, making it top in the world for plastic recycling.

The Japanese government is also trying to encourage more recycling of paper packaging, of which only 15% is currently recycled. The Japan Containers and Packaging Recycling Association assumes much of this responsibility by investing and managing industrial recycling fees.

For a country smaller than the size of California with almost 130 million people, time is of the essence. According to a 2013 report prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme regarding Japanese industrial waste, “Aggressive efforts are needed to upgrade the quality of recycling technologies. The space in industrial waste landfill sites is declining and it is estimated that these sites will be full approximately 10 years from now.”


China is the world’s top importer of recyclable waste. According to China Briefing Magazine, China imports by far more scrap and waste than any other country in the world for the purpose of recycling.

For example, China is the world’s leading producer of copper by a wide margin, and 34.1% of that copper comes from recycled sources. China is also the world leader in reusing aluminum, with 99.5% of its aluminum waste being recycled.

Recycling in China is a market-driven economic activity. As a result, China’s recycling industry employs more people than any other industry except for agriculture. And while there are many large licensed industrial recycling facilities, the industry is dominated by small family-run enterprises. The current system is not without its challenges for industrial recyclers, as evidenced by the following video clip:

There is still a lot of room for improvement in China. Only 5% of China’s construction waste is currently recycled, in stark contrast to 90% in the European Union and 97% in Japan and South Korea. Similarly, in 2012 only 11% of China’s crude steel production was from recycled material, compared to 59%  in the U.S.


Australia has a long history of industrial recycling. The first Australian paper mill to use recycled material was built in 1815; the mill recycled rags into paper. Australia-based BHP Steel first started recycling industrial steel scrap back in 1915. And waste paper collections from both factories and households began in Melbourne in the 1920s.

industrial recycling

Australian Paper has partnered with Planet Ark, an Australian non-profit environmental foundation, to promote industrial recycling.

Modern-day Australian businesses and industry generate about 17.13 million tons of waste per year, just under one-third of the total waste generated across the country. According to the 2014-2015 Inside Waste industry report, recovery rates for this waste stream average about 60%, which places Australia just behind Austria and Germany in the world ratings for recycling.

Australia ranks particularly high for paper recycling. More than 80% of Australia’s paper and cardboard packaging is currently made from recycled fiber. As part of this effort, Australian Paper (the only Australian manufacturer of office, printing and packaging papers) opened a $90 million paper recycling plant at Maryvale in Victoria in April of last year. The plant can process up to 80,000 tons of wastepaper per year.

Globally Speaking

The good news is, all around the globe, responsible industries and individuals are getting better every year at reducing the amount of waste generated and repurposing it. And it’s having a significant positive impact on the global economy, to the tune of about $500 billion per year.

As a New York Post reporter recently observed, if you take away the recycling industry, the world isn’t just a dirtier place — it’s a poorer one.


Waste Management World

United Nations Environment Programme

China Briefing

Facts and Details Japan

Waste Management Association of Australia

New York Post

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