Recycling rates in Europe

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According to the latest statistics, the UK lies ninth on the list for recycling rates in Europe. Conor Sugrue, general manager at MGB Plastics looks at the waste management strategies of better performing European counterparts, like Germany, and discusses how the UK can use best practice from these countries to achieve higher recycling rates. When the European Commission’s statistical office released its first set of comparative data for the recycling and composting rates for municipal solid waste achieved by the European Union’s (EU) 27 member states, it made for some interesting reading.

The UK came ninth on the list at 34% which came in below the EU average of 39% for statistics from 2007. Although the UK’s efforts are to be commended, they pale into insignificance when compared against the top-performing European countries. Propping up the leader board is Germany with a whopping 64% recycling and composting rates, followed by Belgium with 62% and the Netherlands with 60%. So exactly how do Germany et al achieve such high rates and what lessons can the UK take to implement similar measures? To answer these questions, it requires a deeper look at the systems and processes currently in place in Germany and in particular the philosophy it adopts when it comes to recycling.

There is no doubt that Germany leads the European nations in recycling. But at the core of this success is the co-operation and support of the complete spectrum of government, the industry and householders. It has a range of policies in place which binds the complete supply chain to create an effective world beating waste management and recycling strategy.

Making manufacturers think twice about waste

However, the real difference of Germany compared to the UK is the emphasis and importance it places on the very beginning stages of the waste creation cycle – starting from the product manufacturers. At the centre of the strategy, Germany forces manufacturers to think very deeply about their impact on the recycling process. Every business which supplies goods to must think from the outset about three vital components: how to avoid waste, how waste will be recovered and how waste can be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner. This means that all manufacturers must consider these three factors even before a single product is made. By making companies this about these processes, much of Germany’s waste management is virtually eliminated as corporations are forced to evaluate every aspect of manufacturing from design to production. The word recycling of waste is embedded into the fabric of every.

Avoid, recovery and environmental disposal

Rather than pay lip service to its commitment to recycling, the German government passed a law in 1996 – the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act. Their primary decision for this law was due to the growing amount of waste that was being sent to landfill – similar to the UK Government today. This legal requirement meant businesses had to eliminate waste production via one of the three processes. Waste avoidance was seen as critical to the success of this law and driving down recycling rates in general as its forced companies to design their manufacturing processes and packaging with the elimination of waste in mind. Thereafter waste that was inevitable had to be either recycled or converted into energy. Finally, if these two processes do not eradicate the waste, it must be disposed of in a way that is environmentally safe.

Therefore, the onus on reducing waste is on the manufacturers. The analogy is simple – if you create the waste, you take responsibility and steps to clean the mess. This is in complete contrast to the US model where the waste management responsibility lies with the householders. This strategy also covers the complete spectrum of products – everything from solid and packaging wastes to liquid, gaseous, hazardous, radioactive and medical wastes.

Packaging responsibly to minimise recycling

The above legislation was not the single strand forcing the industry to think about its responsibilities. The journey towards sustainability had begun way before. Five years prior to the above legislation, Germany had already started on the road to make manufacturers more accountable and to reduce the amount of solid waste the country was producing by adopting its Packaging Ordinance (PO) agreement. This required all manufacturers to collect and then recycle or reuse their packaging after it is disposed of by consumers. The PO made businesses responsible for the complete lifecycle of the packaging they used and on improving a number of things such as transport packaging (crates and boxes), secondary packaging (non-essential boxes) and primary packaging (toothpaste tubes).

This approach has forced businesses to package goods with less materials and consequently minimising recycling and disposal costs in the process. In addition, Germany also operates a non-profit organisation called Dual System Germany (DSD). Manufacturers pay a fee to become a member of the DSD and are given rights to print the Green Dot trademark on all their packaging. Recycling companies readily accept any materials displaying the Green Dot, because this trademark is a testament of the manufacturer commitment to recycling as it is a member of DSD. This system has been so successful it is now in use by over 130,000 companies in 25 European countries and counting.

The householder responsibility

Finally, all these initiatives are brought together by the wiling participation of homeowners across Germany. The separation of rubbish is not compulsory for the householders, but according to surveys, around 90% of Germans are willing to sort out their rubbish. In the 1970s, Germany had around 50,000 landfills, but now there are fewer than 200 – all testimony to the success of its policies and regulations. It aims to eliminate the need for landfills completely by 2020. With 57% of its municipal solid waste sent to landfill in 2007, the UK land filled much more than the 42% recorded across the EU as a whole. Unsurprisingly, Germany disposed of just one per cent of its waste this way.

It is statistics like these that the UK must aspire to if it is to make any headway in its quest to hit recycling targets. Germany should be a benchmark, not only for the UK, but across the world for those who are serious about lowering their recycling rates. The UK has definitely made great progress over the last decade, but it must maintain this momentum. Although it is still some way behind the likes of Germany and Netherlands, the UK can still achieve great heights. But this will require some serious thinking and planning and someone to take the lead. But above all, it needs the full support of every part of the chain, from Government, business, manufacturers to every household in the UK.

Conor Sugrue is general manager at MGB Plastics, the UK’s leading manufacturer of wheeled bins.

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MGB Plastics Limited
Conor Sugrue
General Manager
Tel: 01709 362448

Editor’s Notes

Operating from a modern manufacturing facility in Rotherham, MGB Plastics has the capacity to manufacture in excess of 1 million wheeled bins per annum. In addition to manufacturing wheeled bins and kitchen caddies, we also have a dedicated “in-house” distribution team that have been responsible for the delivery of in excess of 4 million wheeled bins to households throughout the UK. MGB Plastics Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of One51plc. For further information on One51plc, please visit the website at