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Recycling Targets and Rates in Europe

31st March 2017

In light of the new recycling targets set out in the 2017 Spring Budget, a comparison of recycling in the UK with the rest of Europe feels appropriate. This posts looks at the Recycling targets and rates across Europe and then focusses on two countries.

Each country is free to choose how they act upon the EU Directive. This, combined with other factors, inevitably leads to varying results. Looking at Figure 1  you can see a big variation in how each country’s recycling rates compare to the 2008 EU target. This graph also reveals that performance is not directly tied to economic status. As an example, Greece has a higher GDP than Estonia, but Estonia has out-performed Greece.

Figure 1: Table showing how different countries are succeeding at meeting the EU target. Data from 2013.

Now to focus in on two countries as case examples to help us understand some of the differences between the overachievers (i.e. Germany) and the underachievers (i.e. Greece):


Germany is one of the best-performing countries in the EU. However, you can see in Table 1 that their targets are mostly lower than the UK’s targets. This suggests that recycling rates are not directly tied to targets. Germany recently called for the postponement of the proposed, higher EU recycling targets, essentially due to a disagreement on the calculation method. The issue lies with whether to measure the total material that arrives at a recycling centre or to measure only the material that is recyclable.

Table 1: Comparison of Recycling Targets and Rates


Greece, like Germany and much of Europe, has adopted the Green-Dot system. However, they are not meeting the EU targets (Figure 1 ). Table 1 shows a breakdown of Greece’s recycling rates compared to the EU as a whole. Interestingly, this indicates that the problem is focused mostly on glass and metals. One reason for Greece not meeting the targets, speculated by the European Commission, is the public awareness; there is often a high ratio of non-recyclable materials in recycling bins. This brings us back to the issue of how recycling rates are measured.

Calculating Recycling Rates

There are two main concepts for calculating recycling rates. One is to weigh the material that arrives at recycling plants. The other is to weigh the material that is successfully recycled. These methods will yield different results because not all waste entering the recycling system is recyclable. The latter calculation method might do more to encourage a circular economy because countries may seek to improve the recyclability of packaging and/or improve public awareness in order to meet the targets. However, in the short term, it may result in (superficially) lower targets. This could send out the wrong signal about the European Commission’s stance on waste management.

This brief look at the state of recycling in Europe shows us that if you look at the average recycling rate then, as a union, Europe is meeting the targets. However, the targets are intended for each individual country to try and meet; and some are doing better than others. It shows us that recycling rates are not tied directly to either targets or the strength of the economy. It also shows that it may not matter what system is in place if, for example, public awareness is low. Finally, it is noteworthy that Germany, an overachiever, was calling for a new method of calculation last year. This shows that this is an important issue to consider during any discussion on recycling targets.

If you are interested in learning more about European and Global packaging compliance, please check out our Global EPR page. We also offer services in monitoring what is happening in Global Packaging Legislation and we can offer advice to companies who import into the UK about what obligations might apply to them.


European Commission – Greece Fact Sheet

CIWM Journal – EU Packaging Waste

European Commission – Packaging Waste Statistics