China recently stopped importing other countries’ waste to process in its plants, a policy the Asian country promoted in the 1980s in order to create the raw materials that were in short supply. But starting in 2018, it stopped acquiring up to 24 kinds of waste, including plastic, meaning that developed countries will have to find a way to manage their own waste. Given this situation, investing and promoting recycling seems to be one of the most viable and sustainable solutions to address the problem of dealing with large volumes of waste.
In the recycling field, European countries are leading the way — and were the first to introduce policy incentives to promote the separation of waste and recycling, as well as measures to discourage single-use products like plastic bags and straws. In this regard, the EU has set the objective of recycling 50 percent of household waste in 2020, and 65 percent in 2030.
These are some of the countries that have successfully managed to get their citizens and governments to cooperate to attain high levels of recycling, and some examples of the successful policies.
Sweden: from waste to energy
The Scandinavian country is one of the European territories with the greatest culture of environmental protection, and therefore has one of the most successful recycling rates. The success of the Swedish waste management system lies in raising citizens’ awareness to do the first step: separation. The Swedes separate their waste into different colored bags, depending on the type of waste, and the recycling plants separate it into recyclable and non-recyclable elements. The waste that cannot be recycled is burned in plants that transform their combustion into energy (a process known as “waste to energy”) to provide electricity for 250,000 homes in the country. Recyclable elements follow the normal process that converts them into new materials.
The process has been so successful that the trash Swedes generate is not sufficient to supply all of the plants. The country has to import trash from neighboring countries like Germany or the U.K. to keep them fully operational and generate energy in a more sustainable way than the combustion of fossil fuels.
Japan: the path to zero waste
Together with Sweden, Japan is one of the countries that takes recycling the most seriously. In addition to the environmental commitment, here, the technical need to manage the large volumes of waste generated by millions of people in its immense cities is important. And the Japanese have proven to be extremely efficient at reusing and recycling their waste. The country’s government promotes and encourages the separation of water and citizens rigorously manage their own waste through a system of classification and pick-up schedules that they fulfil flawlessly.
One of the examples of the Japanese model’s success is the town of Kamikatsu, a small town in the mountains with difficult access to the system available in large cities. That’s why the families are the ones in charge of separating the waste into 34 categories, which they subsequently transfer to recycling centers. In 2020, the town aims to recycle 100 percent of its waste; it currently recycles 90 percent.
In addition, Japan has a high metal recycling rate. The medals for the Tokyo Olympic games are a good example of this, as they will be made of recycled metals.
The Netherlands: reutilization and sustainability
The Netherlands are another example of sustainability, as they successfully apply sustainability models to mobility, construction and consumption. And a clear example of recycling materials in this country is the 2018 construction of two sections of a bike path made entirely of recycled plastic in the cities of Zwolle and Giethoorn. The use of plastic to build roads has also been done in other places around the world, but this was the first time they were made entirely of plastic.
In addition to a clear commitment to reuse all types of materials, the Netherlands also has a strong commitment to renewable energy and investment in developing initiatives that lead the country to reach a circular, sustainable economy.
Canada: tires and cigarette butts
The North American country does not have one of the highest recycling rates in the world, but it does have a deeply rooted circular economy culture that leads Canadians to sell, give or donate products they are no longer using instead of discarding them. They are also experts in recycling tires, as they use the material to mix with asphalt and build roads or playground surfacing.
Furthermore, Canada has also distributed containers across numerous cities to recycle cigarette butts, as they are one of most polluting, discarded objects in the world.
Wales: a success story
In just 20 years, the country has gone from recycling five percent of household waste to 64 percent. These figures are the result of an ambitious package of measures launched by the government, which aims to promote the circular economy among its citizens. The goal is to not have any waste in dumps or incinerators by 2050.
Some of the measures include the reduction of single-use products, the requirement to separate household waste and the involvement of industrial manufacturers through a responsibility scheme. The country has also proposed developing recycling plants capable of processing products that are not normally recyclable, such as mattresses and diapers.