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Why do Germany and Taiwan achieve such better rates of household recycling than the UK?

Alison Dean, 22nd October 2020

Adapted from DEFRA, 2020, UK Statistics on Waste

It is difficult to make international comparisons on recycling because of the different bases on which data is collected and aggregated. However, according to a comparative report on household waste recycling (Gillies, Jones, Papineschi & Hogg, 2017), Germany has the highest household recycling rate of 57%, and Taiwan the second 55.4%.  While Wales is third at 53.9%, the UK as a whole at 45.5% does not appear in the top 10.  Looking at the reported municipal waste recycling rates the UK is only sixteenth with a municipal waste recycling rate of 43.5%, compared with Germany’s rate of 66.1%.   England lags further behind at 42.8%.

In our recent research on householders in England and the management of single use plastics in and out of the household, we found that UK householders found recycling confusing. In Germany, where the rules regarding recycling are much more consistent and stringent. Search for ‘recycling in Germany’ on the internet and the first response is not a request for your post code as it is in the UK.  Instead there is a consistent message across a range of websites, and the Green dot system is used.

There are 4 colour-coded bins: blue (paper), yellow (plastic, metal and composites), brown or green (bio-matter) and grey (landfill/incinerator); glass collection bins (what we would know as bottle banks) and well-established bottle deposit/return schemes.  The same colour coding is used throughout Germany and what can be recycled in these is consistent.  Lightweight packaging, including plastic and aluminium food packaging, goes in the yellow recycling bin.

In Taiwan what has been described as a “comprehensive recycling infrastructure” has been developed, financed by manufacturers, importers and the sale of specific refuse bags, required for the disposal of general waste (Newman, 2019).  A key feature is the engagement with householders at the point of collection.  Householders sort their waste, at a minimum, into general waste, dry recyclables and food waste (although many local authorities require a finer sort of the dry recyclables) and bring it to the collection lorries, one a traditional refuse lorry, the other a flatbed lorry for the recyclables, at designated times, announcing their arrival like ice cream vans.  In the cities, collections are frequent over the course of the day and, because there is interaction between the householder and the collection workers, the sorting into the different types of recyclables can be checked (Rossi, 2019; Newman, 2019).  In both countries, the recycling system is consistent, regardless of where the household is located. 

In both Germany and Taiwan a national approach has been adopted with consistency across local authorities, allowing for transferable knowledge to develop within and across households. Compare this with the UK where there is much less consistency.  Here, using wider informal ties to build knowledge and practice is not as useful as it would be where there are nationally co-ordinated and coherent schemes. Family and friendship networks may as a result be less effective in encouraging specific recycling behaviours, unless the geographic spread of those networks is restricted to a single local authority.  Greater consistency and coherence in recycling policy and waste management implementation policy in the UK across local authorities could help address this.


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