Recycling in the four corners of the globe

While the principle of recycling is universal, no one region of the globe does it like the others. Here is a brief continent-by-continent overview of recycling practices, records and philosophies.

Recycling, Africa


In 2050, a quarter of the world's population will be African. This soaring demographic growth has a direct consequence: a similarly unbridled increase in the volume of waste produced.

But the lack of government money to introduce effective collection and recycling systems means that the vast majority of countries on the continent are forced to dump these materials in public or illegal landfill sites, which today account for over 4% of global CO2 emissions.

To combat this scourge, and notably the plague of plastic waste, many recycling companies are innovating constantly. In Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, plastic bags are collected by rag merchants, then turned into furniture, clothing or road construction materials by increasingly inventive small businesses. In Nigeria, a new initiative combining public and private funding will this year streamline the existing networks of rag merchants in the state of Ogun to collect household waste at source and produce electricity or bio-fertiliser. A first in the history of a continent which has the ideas but not yet the funds and the facilities to put them into practice. 

Recycling, North America


The US is the world's number one waste producer, but it is ranked only 18th in the league table of the world's top recyclers, with 35% of materials recovered.

The main cause of this problem is the absence of national directives obliging the various states and their cities to work towards reusing materials. The interest in recycling and the effectiveness of the systems put in place vary enormously from place to place.

For example, Oklahoma City and Indianapolis recycle less than 4% of their waste, while a city like San Francisco processes almost everything, and really does set a recycling example for the rest of the world to emulate. At the very heart of the bay, in a 20,000 sq m warehouse on Pier 96, sits the largest professional recycling centre in the world.

Farther north, in Canada, its rate of 27% recycled materials is the result of the same lack of legislative consistency regarding waste treatment.

Recycling, South America


Chile recycles nearly 17 million tonnes of waste annually, which is less than 10%, but it makes it the leader in a continent struggling to make headway in this sector. Lacklustre environmental messaging, non-existent laws and few recycling firms: the causes of the problem are numerous, but fortunately some entrepreneurs are taking matters into their own hands.

For instance, dozens of new innovative projects are being implemented every year, including information campaigns on paper recycling in Colombia, voluntary collection points in Argentina, the conversion of plastic bottles into survival blankets in Peru, and mass electronic waste collection days in Mexico. These projects are helping recycling to grow rapidly in all four corners of Latin America.

Recycling, Asia


Big importers of recyclable waste intended to make up for a shortage of raw materials and bolster their industrial output, China, India, Taiwan, Malaysia and South Korea are now the big economic players in the international recycling market.

From electronic waste to scrap paper (used to make product packaging sent to Europe and the United States, then re-imported to be treated again), the factories in the Asian recycling dynamos treat all types of materials.

But with over 60 million tonnes of waste imported and recycled every year (over 27 million tonnes of which is scrap paper/cardboard), China is still the heavyweight in this sector. However, it does not achieve the best recovery rate when it comes to its own waste, lagging behind South Korea (60%).

Recycling, Oceania


With an overall recovery rate of 41%, Australia ranks 13th worldwide, and is the second-ranked non-European country (after South Korea).

How can we explain this performance? The government's desire, since the mid-2000s, to move from “full landfill” to maximum recovery by encouraging the construction of state-of-the-art plants across its huge territory. It has also rolled out numerous public information campaigns and pioneering initiatives.

Additionally, while systematic sorting of all forms of waste is not yet mandatory, Australia was one of the first countries to recycle cigarette butts.  But it is still the only country in Oceania with such a proud record (the recovery rate of its neighbouring islands rarely exceeds 5%). 

Recycling, Europe


Increasingly widespread sorting, the adoption of ever stricter environmental laws, a constant improvement in recovery techniques and the growth of the circular economy: Europe is undeniably the world leader in recycling.

Countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden achieve recovery rates of well over 50%, and vie for the top spot in the international league tables every year. In addition, more than fourteen EU member states (including France, which is now above average), increased their rate by over ten points between 2004 and 2012.
Yet this remarkable performance masks large disparities between the leading countries and nations with less proud records. 



With its circle formed of three green arrows, the Möbius strip has been the universal logo of recyclable materials (but not necessarily recycled materials) since 1970.

It owes its name to the mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius, who in 1858 was the first to describe a two-dimensional object with a single face. The schematic version was chosen as the symbol of recycling on the first Earth Day, an event created by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson to raise global awareness of the environmental cause. 

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