Global Trends in Recycling: How the World Recycles Waste

Recycling has become an increasingly important issue globally, as countries grapple with managing large volumes of waste in an environmentally responsible manner. Recycling rates vary widely around the world, with some countries recycling over 80% of their waste, while others recycle less than 20%. Many factors impact recycling rates, from government policies to economic incentives to public awareness. This article explores global recycling trends, including which countries recycle the most and least, what key drivers impact recycling rates, new technologies that are improving recycling, and what the future may hold for recycling worldwide.

Kirill Yurovskiy

Recycling Rates Around the World

There is significant variability in how much waste countries are able to recycle. According to World Bank data, the global average municipal solid waste (MSW) recycling rate is about 13%. However, developed OECD countries have much higher average rates at 34%, while developing countries often trail behind with just 4% of waste recycled. 

When looking at top recycling countries, rates over 80% show what is possible with robust recycling systems in place. Leading the pack is Germany with a 68% recycling rate, followed by countries like Austria at 63%, South Korea at 59%, Wales at 57%, and Switzerland at 51%. On the opposite end, recycling rates can lag below 10% in lower income countries that lack formal waste management infrastructure, or still largely use dump sites and landfills instead of material recovery facilities. 

Drilling down into specific country profiles:

  • Germany’s 68% recycling rate includes 65% of municipal waste, with even higher rates for commercial waste and construction debris.
  • Austria recycles 63% of municipal waste and 68% of packaging materials like glass and paper.
  • South Korea impressively climbed up from near 0% two decades ago to pass laws now mandating 59% recycling rates nationally.
  • Wales recently topped 56% recycling levels with a goal for 70% by 2025.
  • Switzerland’s statistics mostly hover near 50%, though some cantons exceed 60%.

On the lower end:

  • The United States manages only 35% recycling of municipal solid waste nationally.  
  • Canada recycles around 25% of waste generated which has been largely stagnant.
  • Australia sits at 31% recycling of a mounting waste volume issue.
  • Countries like India and Vietnam recycle less than 10% with inadequate waste management infrastructure. 

So while top recycling countries demonstrate what consistent policy and public engagement can achieve over 50 or 60+% recycling rates, poorer performing countries still struggle despite stated commitments or availability of recycling technology. Closing these gaps to improve recycling globally remains an ongoing challenge.

Countries With the Highest Recycling Rates


Germany has been praised as a top performing recycling leader, with rates doubling over the past two decades. Currently, Germany recycles about 68% of its waste, with a goal to reach 70% by 2020. Recycling systems are advanced, with household waste split into recyclable fractions like paper, plastics and bio-waste. Economic incentives encourage widespread adoption of recycling.


Austria lands high for European recycling rates at around 63% currently. Like Germany, Austria utilizes economic disincentives for waste disposal like landfill taxes that make recycling more cost-attractive. There is also a deposit refund system for plastic bottles and cans, which drives high return rates. Extensive public awareness campaigns have also shifted social attitudes to embrace recycling as mainstream.

South Korea

South Korea has shown perhaps the most dramatic growth in recycling rates among leading countries. Recycling was virtually non-existent in South Korea about 20 years ago, but rates have skyrocketed with concerted government efforts driving recycling. South Korea now recycles 59% of waste and has a goal to reach 63% by 2020. Speedy industrialization and urbanization initiated organized recycling efforts starting in the 1990s. Government-led public awareness initiatives and regulation in waste management fueled rapid growth.

Countries With the Lowest Recycling Rates

United States

The United States has shockingly low recycling rates for a developed country. Currently only about 35% of waste is recycled in the U.S. Some blame a lack of federal policies or public awareness around recycling, as there is no national public promotion programs like those seen overseas. With a sprawling geography, recycling policies can vary immensely between local cities and rural areas. Interest is growing however, with 94% of Americans open to recycling but citing lack of access.


Like the United States, Canada also has relatively low recycling rates considering its wealth and developed status. Canada recycles around 25% of its waste, though goals have been set to reach 30% by 2030. Part of the challenge stems from Canada having spread out communities that are costly to serve with recycling pickup. However Canada is actively working to boost recycling through initiatives like standardizing recycling programs nation-wide, rather than the current fragmented efforts.


Australia recycles only about 31% of the considerable waste it produces. The country has been labeled as the “Dumb Blonde” of recycling for its enduring failure to improve in spite of one of the highest waste outputs globally. Difficulties cited include geographic isolation, lack of domestic recycling industries, outdated collection models and more. However, community attitudes are strong in favor of recycling, even if structural barriers persist. New policies aim to address these issues and boost recycling 40% by 2025.

Factors Impacting Recycling Rates Globally

There are a variety of socioeconomic, political and structural factors that determine how effectively countries are able to recycle waste. Wealth and stability are key drivers, as economically thriving and less corrupt countries have more organized waste management systems. Government policies and regulations play a monumental role in expanding recycling to the mainstream. Convenience factors matter too – countries where households must separately sort recycling see less compliance than ones with single-bin models. Ultimately, cultural views on environmental responsibility shape how motivated citizens are to recycle.

Technology Innovations to Improve Recycling

Recycling rates around the world stand to benefit from new technological improvements in sorting and processing recycled materials.

Automated Sorting

Smart optical sorting technology powered by artificial intelligence guides mechanical sorting to identify different materials and divert them by type. This automated precision sorting helps recycling companies achieve purer bales of recycled materials, increasing their market value.

Chemical Recycling

Also called advanced recycling, chemical recycling breaks down plastics into their chemical building blocks so they can be remade into new plastic products. This helps expand what types of low-value plastics can be processed. Critics argue chemical recycling is incineration under a new name, but proponents tout its environmental upside versus extracting more fossil fuels.

Smart Recycling Bins

Internet of Things enabled “smart bins” embedded with sensors can help optimize efficiency of waste collection by tracking real-time filling levels. This helps cities cut down on unnecessary trips when bins are still light, saving on both fuel costs and carbon emissions from garbage trucks. Smart bins also have potential to provide recycling data analytics and identify contamination levels when the wrong materials are mixed.

Government Policies and Initiatives

Governments wield immense power through policies and regulations to transform recycling behaviors among citizens, corporations and entire cities. Many top recycling countries have implemented strong national policies that create incentives and expectations around recycling. This includes enacting new government recycling targets or timetables, providing subsidies and tax breaks that support recycling industries, creating product disposal regulations, setting standards for recycled material content, launching public awareness campaigns and more. The European Union in particular issues directives on waste management standards that member countries then implement locally. Government-backed initiatives help drive lasting change through all stages of the recycling chain.

The Future of Global Recycling Efforts

Projections on the future of global recycling hinge on both caution and optimism. Total municipal solid waste levels continue to intensify around the globe as more developing nations accelerate infrastructural changes and economic growth. Over 2.01 billion tonnes of waste was generated in 2016 alone. Without intervention, that number may balloon to 3.40 billion tonnes over the next 30 years. But goals set by governments and supra-national alliances help chart an alternative course, if actually executed. 

The United Nations environmental program has adopted waste reduction targets of at least 70% recycling globally by 2030. The EU aims for 65% recycling by the end of the decade across its member states. China recently announced an aggressive new 5-year plan to reach 46% by 2025. Optimistic visions imagine the creation of a full circular economy that captures all waste value chains.

Advancements in waste-to-energy conversion, automated sorting facilities powered by artificial intelligence, and chemical recycling of plastics hint at a more sustainably recycled future worldwide. But to get there will require continued efforts across policy, technology and public engagement spheres.

Our Global Recycling Problem, Explained


Recycling has taken on an increasingly vital role environmentally and economically around the globe. But rates continue to vary immensely worldwide, impacted by wealth gaps, governance, geography, cultural values and more. While No.1 ranked Germany sustains a strong 68% recycling rate, lower ranked countries scrape by in the 20-30% range and developing nations can lag under 10%. New innovations in recycling systems and government initiatives seek to improve standards universally. If the world is to effectively tackle intensifying volumes of waste sustainability, recycling efforts globally cannot flounder but must continue advancing across all societies.

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