Recycling Lessons from Around the World and Addressing the Root of the Problem

“Reduce, reuse, and recycle” has long become the rallying cry for many new environmentalists and policymakers. For many parts of the world, the first step towards environmentally friendly policies and climate action starts with recycling. Several governments have also successfully rallied thousands of citizens, companies, and organizations to cooperate over high-level recycling initiatives. Why’s that?

Recycling helps ups move from a linear to a circular economy

Our economies so far have mostly functioned on a linear model: we produce, buy, consume, and throw. In restarting the process, we’re spending more while resources that were once abundant become scarcer by the unit.

However, the circular economy calls for putting items we’d normally throw back into the production loop. It makes these items the raw materials for the next round instead of harvesting new resources from mines and forests. In giving “finished” goods a new life, we reduce the strain on the environment.

When we recycle, we also save the tonnes of precious energy that goes into extracting, transporting, refining, and processing raw materials to make them industry-standard. That helps protect the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing the number of goods thrown into the landfill. 

Recycling lessons from around the world 

We’re talking of the benefits in words here, but many countries are seeing them in action. 

Sweden’s history of recycling and environmental protection

Sweden only sends 1% of its trash to landfills. 52% is converted into energy enough to heat 1,000,000 homes and power 250,000. The remaining 47% is recycled and sent back into the loop — and through all this, Sweden has managed to bring down its CO2 emissions by a whopping 2.2 million tonnes. How did they get there?

Sweden took a three-prong approach. They showed the value of recycling to its citizens — cleaner environments and heating for a million homes.

The profit prong ensures that they save on the high costs of fossil fuels. But they also generate 100 million USD from recycling waste imported from the United Kingdom, Norway, Italy, and Ireland. 

The final prong is just as important: the people proposition that creates an inclusive system. From a very young age, Swedish children are taught to recycle and engage in practical environmentally friendly activities such as making their own paper and implementing waste policies. Citizens get discount vouchers for using nearby recycling machines. In the more urban areas, waste chutes take trash straight from homes to energy converters. This ensures that the trash from one building powers that same building. 

If “from trash to treasure” had a mascot, it would be Sweden. The Scandinavian country has turned recycling into a multi-million dollar venture through a national strategy that’s been widely lauded. 

Austria’s successful recycling run

In Austria, 63% of all their waste is diverted from landfills to be recycled or incinerated. They also run on a producer responsibility model, where producers are given financial and/or physical responsibility for the disposal or treatment of post-consumer products. 

Austria has also banned some types of waste from being taken to the landfill. This includes products with more than 5% of total organic carbon emission rates. In early 2020, the country banned the use of plastic bags, which is an excellent example of cutting the problem off at the source. 

Japan’s sophisticated waste management system

Japan is truly committed to the aggressive production of wealth, development, and technology. As that comes with high environmental costs, the country set up comprehensive waste management and recycling system to match it.

In Japan, waste is typical divided into nine categories — and each household has a colored calendar indicating which of the categories will be collected on what days. The principle of Mottainai, which dates back to Shintioist philosophy, also encourages the visible appreciation of resources and expression of regret over waste. As a result, most Japanese citizens take recycling very seriously.

Official numbers show that Japan recycles 84% of plastic collected in 2018 (in contrast, the US recycles only 9%). More than half of this collected plastic goes into thermal recycling systems to generate energy. Around 28% is either repurposed or chemically broken down to become raw components for new products. 

However, it is worth mentioning that Japan is the second-highest generator of plastic waste per capita globally, which is cause for alarm. Their thermal recycling system isn’t perfect, either, as the emissions from burning plastic are detrimental to the atmosphere. However, Japan is committed to reducing plastic waste and emissions caused by it by 2030. 

More than recycling, we must address the source of the problem

Japan’s story is an excellent segue into addressing what’s at the root, not the symptoms alone. 

It’s important to note that recycling is not the be-all and end-all solution. If anything, it’s treating only one symptom of our dependency on single-use plastic and fast-moving consumer goods. The source of the problem is that we’re consuming too much and at too fast a speed than can be sustained.

According to cultural forecaster James Wallman, we’re “stuffocated.” Most of our socio-environmental problems come from abundance, not scarcity. Being trapped in the shop-spend-consume cycle means we need more than recycling systems to tackle our escalating global waste problem.

To that end, the key is not finding new ways to process it but changing our attitudes towards consumption and buying patterns. It’s a problem that needs to be solved earlier on in the process of production and consumption. 

This is hard for the business world to champion, as it sounds like “de-growth.” Our aim should ideally be to go back to a world where waste didn’t exist at all. However, a more realistic goal would be working towards a world where “reuse” is an everyday process. It would also be beneficial to move collective consumer behavior towards experiencing over consuming.

While we speak more in-depth about the experience economy in this article, the crux is this: there are several benefits to choosing prevention over cure and intentionality over impulse that we can’t afford to overlook. 

The final word

There’s plenty to learn from the recycling success stories we’ve examined above. For one, we see prime examples of how to make nationwide reuse and recycling policies actionable at an individual level, regardless of motivation levels. For the last decade or so, many of our environmental policies have been heavily reliant on highly motivated consumers. However, the linchpin to seeing any approach like this work at a large scale is to make sure it’s easy (and mandatory) for every single citizen to participate. Only then can we achieve nationwide success and global changes. 

Secondly, we gain a brief insight into the producer responsibility model, which places the onus on citizens and those responsible for producing the goods we consume. The lesson to be learned here is that waste management is never a one-way street. It needs buy-in from the complex networks that make up the fabric of society — citizens, educators, environmentalists, policymakers, producers, consumers. 

Granted, setting up systems like these take years and call for the overhaul of many strategies we’re already comfortable with. However, nationwide systems like recycling pave the way for better, more targeted policies that save our planet and help it flourish.