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Recycling Systems Around the World

It was Mary Kondo time at my apartment, and my flatmates and I had a chance to look at all trash we had created: numerous boxes, stacks of paper, and heaps of plastic. It is the best time to think about recycling, but also the worst: it is hard enough to sort through the sheer volume of trash we collectively produced during our stay, but even harder to muster any motivation to do it. Especially when it is possible that management will put it all in the same dumpster anyway.

When there is only so much one can do as an individual, it is time to take a look at recycling systems as a whole, and see how they work in different countries.


Germany is the world leader in recycling at a rate of 62%, followed by Austria or South Korea depending on which year you are looking at.

The foundation for the current recycling framework came about in 1996, when Germany passed the Closed Substance Cycle Waste Management Act putting the responsibility of management, recovery, and disposal of waste in the hands of producers. It is also worth mentioning that waste management is integral to the the government’s long-term raw materials strategy, citing recycling as “an important element of sustainable resource management”.

The presence of the country’s recycling system can be felt via the Pfand, the container-deposit system. In the Pfand system, companies produce refillable bottles. Retailers sell bottles with a surcharge to consumers. Everyday customers then get the surcharge (deposit) back when they return bottles to the stores. Many supermarkets in the country have bottle recycling machines that recognize qualified bottles, and for each bottle put into the machine, a person can receive from eight cents to a quarter in return.

Suggested video – A bottle recycling machine

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLKmr0uVhWo]


With regards to waste, Taiwan made a remarkable effort to transform its environment; from distributing 80% of municipal waste to landfills in 1996, it reached a recycling rate of 55% in 2015.  

Taiwan’s recycling system focuses on individuals. Taiwanese citizens are required to sort their garbage into three categories: general refuse, recyclables and kitchen waste. For this task, people need to purchase government-issued blue garbage bags, funding the program in the process. Twice a day, at designated locations, white garbage trucks play classical music tunes from Fur Elise to the The Maiden’s Prayers while waiting for residents to gather around with their carts, buckets, and cars full of these blue bags. This is a normal routine for people, and garbage sorting and the value of “cleanliness” has been included in the school curriculum.  The capital city, Taipei, also has smart recycling machines that collect and reward transit dollars for every piece of recyclable.

Along with this is significant penalties for non-compliance. One count in violation of the code can go up to NT$6,000 (US$184), half of which can go to anyone who provides evidence. Taiwan also employs video cameras and other rewards for citizens for the purpose of detecting violations.

Suggestion for video – Garbage truck during a stop

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7DPXpqp9e4]


While Japan doesn’t boast the best recycling rate with a municipal rate of about 21%, it is noteworthy for making recycling an essential part of its circular economy.  The country’s limited landfill space and raw material resources are favorable conditions for the development of a circular economy. The country’s recycling system incentivizes industries to invest in recycling as away to recover valuable materials. In 2012, 98% of metal was reported recovered, including rare earth metals, whose extraction creates tremendous environmental harms from erosion to acidification and radiation. The recycling rate for PET* has been above 90%.

Recycling collection rules vary by areas in Japan, but there are standard features found in other countries, such as recycling bins in urban areas, requirements for sorting trash by categories, and collection schedules. According to Benton and Hazell’s analysis from the Institution of Environmental Sciences, the system is different and effective due to the following: “consumer-friendly” collection, upfront financing by consumers as part of the retail prices, and the integration between manufacturing and recycling infrastructure.

Japan also benefits from using advanced technology to recover materials from waste. For instance, the Showa Denko factory in Tokyo uses “heat gasification” to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Manufacturers also tinkered with product designs; PET* bottles in Japan have seen a steady decrease in weight.

*PET is short for polyethylene terephthalate, a type of polymer and a common material for beverage containers.

More than meets the eyes

While these systems are impressive, there are complexities. Germany’s world-class system also relies on a large number of people called Pfandsammler, deposit collectors who gather recyclables from garbage bins and other locations for meager pay. As a majority of pfandsammler(s) are elderly pensioners or the homeless, certain measures to process and collect trash have been politically controversial. Meanwhile in Japan, the high PET recycling rate comes with high level of packaging waste; around 60% of household waste in Japan is made up of plastic containers and food packaging. Even Taiwan’s recycling rate, which was remarkable considering the country’s quick transformation, was alleged to have been inflated via the omission of certain garbage sources.

So, what can I do?

These examples serve as inspiration as to what ours could look like. Through them, we can examine our own system, understanding both its merits and limitations. Indeed, we seldom get to choose which recycling system we have access to, but perhaps by knowing the value of our actions in this collective effort, we can make better decisions and advocate for higher standards. For now, this is best we can do.