Learning from Norway on recycling

How bottle return schemes can help ti reduce pollution

In 2018, The European Environmental Bureau, in collaboration with the environmental consultancy firm Eunomia Research and Consulting. released a list of the top recycling countries in the world.

While Wales made it to fourth place, after South Korea and before Switzerland, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were absent from the Top 10, showing a need for the UK to find inspirations in the models of some of their well-ranked neighbours, such as Germany. This article will aim to do exactly that, by summarising some of the European best practices and reflecting on their applicability in the UK.

Recycling in Germany

In the 1990s, Germany saw an increase in the citizen’s use of single-use containers. The government reacted fast by implementing new legislation for waste management, heavily relying on the inhabitants’ participation.

As a result, Germans use a lot more bins than the Brits. Indeed, their recycling system incorporates no less than six different coloured bins. The citizens are thus extremely well trained in waste sorting and have incentives to keep up. Indeed, being caught inserting waste into the wrong bin could lead to fines. Moreover, households who do not comply with sorting rules could see waste collection operators refuse to collect their waste. Companies could be similarly fined.

Another key measure lies in what is known as the “Pfand” system. It is translated into a small extra cost applied in the form of a “deposit” to the sale of bottled drinks. Such cost is refunded once users return the empty bottles to the food store or automated machines. In big cities, local authorities have installed containers so that those who can spare a few cents can donate them to the most vulnerable members of society. The latter reduced the bin-searching issue which had arisen from this system.

Additionally, Germany creates the Green Dot system, forcing a strip-down of packaging. As a point of fact, manufacturers and retailers have to pay for a “Green Dot” on products: the more packaging there is, the higher the fees.

Taking inspiration

Norway, which took inspiration from Germany to create even stricter laws, has shown that this model could do similar wonders in other countries, as the Scandinavian territory is now close to knocking Germany off the top spot when in 2018 it was not even in the top 10.

Those results, however, do hold limits. While those countries are, indeed, very efficient when it comes to recycling, some, like Switzerland, have been shown to hold that title in part because of the incredible amount of waste they produce, something the UK would not want to copy. Indeed Switzerland ranks fifth for recycling, while simultaneously being one of the worst scoring countries for waste-production rate, with 90 million tonnes produced yearly.

Furthermore, what is done with the citizen’s recycling is also key. For Germany, the reality behind the extensive bin sorting created scandals. Indeed a 2019 report found that a staggering amount of the country’s recyclables is either incinerated in Germany- a practice that generates harmful pollution for human health – or shipped to poorer countries to sometimes be dumped or burned illegally.

Applicability in the UK

Most of the above-described efforts seem to be applicable in the UK. However it is important to stress that it would require important educational marketing campaigns in order to reach the same amount of results.

About the author

Ariane Far

Ariane is a policy advisor at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She was previously the Environment Spokesperson for Centre. As part of Centre, Ariane wrote a paper on lessons from Denmark on the environment. She also published a monthly article for Centre on the environment. She also has experience as a freelance writer for the Oxford Business Review and as a Communications Intern at the UN Environment Programme.