Data on global waste management is hard to gather in a meaningful way because there are so many sources, journeys, and endpoints for waste.
The plastic bottle you put in a recycling container in your home in New York goes on a different journey than the plastic bottle you toss into the wrought-iron trash container on the sidewalk of Dallas. When scaled to account for entire countries, these differences make data collection challenging.
But the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has made a valiant effort to track municipal waste management throughout its 35 member states. And the results are striking.
Before we dig into the data, it’s important to note that municipal waste refers to household and commercial waste and accounts for just 10% of the total waste produced worldwide. Other types of waste include industrial wastes, agricultural wastes, medical waste, radioactive waste or sewage sludge
But municipal waste has an outsized effect on pollution and therefore soaks up a lot of waste management budgets. So getting a grip on this kind of waste is a big deal.
At the bottom of the list are Turkey and Chile, which each recycle an abysmal 1% of total waste, according to the report. They are also the only countries to have become worse at recycling since 2000, with 33% and 78% declines, respectively.
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In Turkey, waste management is not a priority issue. Therefore, the vast majority of trash ends up in landfills. In Chile, unregulated dumping is common because the waste management system is spotty.
Germany, meanwhile, leads the pack with a 65% recycling rate, which has risen 16% since 2000. Germany is so good at recycling for a couple of reasons. First, the country has gone to considerable lengths to standardize recycling containersthroughout the country. There are color-coded containers all throughout the country that people adhere to. Second, Germans enjoy recycling and the sense of civic virtue it bestows. A culture of environmental sustainability reigns in the country.
In terms of countries making the most improvement, Poland is at the top of the list. It’s recycling an astounding 886% more of its waste than it was at the start of millennium. Estonia has increased its recycling by 600% in the same period, Ireland has increased by 261%, and the UK by 250%.
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South Korea, Austria, Belgium, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland have overall recycling rates above 50%.
The US has an overall recycling rate of 35% and the average throughout the OECD is 34%.
Across the board, countries have gotten 42% better at recycling. That’s a good sign, because waste management will be of critical importance throughout the next century.
It’s estimated that the amount of waste generated by humans globally will more than triple from 1.3 billion tons today to 4 billion tons by 2100.
Bad waste management contaminates waterways and soil and causes climate change accelerating emissions. It harms animal and plant life, leads to deforestation, and spreads disease.
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Further, the earth doesn’t have finite resources. To accommodate a growing population and rising living standards around the world, countries will have adopt more sustainable waste management practices to make sure resources are put to use multiple times. Otherwise, there won’t be enough resources to go around.
Regulations have to be put in place to make sure industries are using consistent materials that can be easily recycled and everyday citizens have to be encouraged to sort their trash in responsible ways. And, as the Germans have discovered, there’s something nice about treating the planet well, as a partner in the messy business of life