Attitudes towards recycling in different countries

Published 2 April 2017
This week we are diving into recycling bins. How do we recycle packaging in different countries and what are the general attitudes to the subject?

In the United Kingdom, recycling is perceived to be a governmental issue rather than a personal responsibility, and in both the UK and Germany recycling is regulated by the government, forcing consumers to recycle. In China, however, recycling is not that widespread and the consumers also expect the government and manufacturers to take action.

We are starting off by looking into the United Kingdom, where recycling is now part of most consumers’ lives. Most people here started recycling when recycling bins were provided by councils, however different rules apply from one council to another and different bins are provided. Since the supermarkets in the UK started to charge for plastic bags, the focus on recyclability has increased. Very few people in the UK admit not to recycle or not doing it properly.

The reasons for not recycling are mixed:

  • Living in London can make it more tricky: it takes more effort to get to shared bins
  • It is easier to recycle when you live in a house in the suburbs as you have space for your own bins
  • A couple of people interviewed claimed that the act of recycling is more wasteful in terms of energy than not recycling and letting the waste go to landfill
  • Some blame the manufacturers for making life hard for consumers, especially with mixed materials

If we take a look at the packaging itself, what distinguishes ‘good’ packaging from ‘bad’ from a recycling point of view? Here’s how the Brits see it.

Good packaging:

  • All the same type of material = all goes in the same bin = less effort
  • Cardboard has been considered the best but also plastic is now increasingly accepted when some of it can be recycled
  • Few declare preferring packaging in biodegradable material rather than simply recyclable

Bad packaging:

  • Having to separate things due to mixed materials e.g. having to remove the plastic window from a cardboard box; having to separate different kinds of plastic parts
  • Requires effort in other ways like rinsing / cleaning greasy foodstuffs

So, we move on to Germany. Germans like to see their country as a role model for recycling with strong rules regarding waste separation. However, there are a few different opinions in the sense of separation effort. Some obey the rules, for the benefit of the environment with a good conscience as a bonus, others are skeptical, cynical or unsure by press reports about high energy cost of recycling and all the waste finally landing on the same conveyor belt. The Germans believe that caring about the environment means caring for future generations, meaning reducing the exhaust of natural resources, making material reusable and reducing pollution of the earth with non-biodegradable waste.

So what do the Germans think about the packaging from a recycling point of view?

Good packaging:

  • In general, only one packaging material preferred
  • Paper, easy to recycle and most obvious where to put (paper bin), no misconception possible
  • Cardboard is considered as resource-saving as paper and is likewise recycled, but sometimes harder to cut down to fit in the bin
  • Plastic if it can be reused for other purposes

Bad packaging:

  • Hard plastic is harder to recycle
  • Empty glass bottles/jars need much storage space and imply a load to carry
  • Metal based materials are sometimes sharp-edged and not always clear in which bin to fit in
  • Some consumers disassemble packaging that consists of different materials which is labour-intensive

Moving on to China, what do the Chinese have to say on the matter? The clearest message is that recyclability has less impact on consumers’ purchase behaviour than reusability has. When talking about sustainability and recycling, consumers in China think about good quality and environmentally friendly products. Many feel that the society should further enhance recycling policy to make sure recyclable trash gets separately collected as this will benefit the environment. Consumers are more likely to purchase a product, which has a packaging they believe can be reused at home.

Consumers in Beijing differ from the two European countries as they have the habit of collecting specific recycling packages to exchange for money. If the package is not reusable at home, they collect plastic, cardboard, and tin packages and sell them for a small amount of money to people who collect recyclable trash and in their turn sell that to processing factories. In China, only limited neighbourhood communities have separate trash bins for recyclable and non-recyclable trash, therefore a majority of people mix all trash together into trash cans at home.

So it seems people in all the three countries are interested in and willing to recycle, but in some cases would like some more guidance on the matter. When it comes to recycling, paper and board packaging is on top of consumers’ minds.

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