Plastic packaging waste recycling: a lesson from Eastern EU countries
by Giulia Carbonaro

As social awareness on the issue of plastic pollution has significantly increased in recent years, countries across the EU have made considerable efforts to reduce plastic waste.

Despite concerted measures by the European Commission, the European Parliament and national authorities to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics, every year over 15.8 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste are still generated in Europe, with an average of 31kg of plastic waste produced per person. This plastic waste is either recycled, sent to landfills or incinerated for heat or energy generation.

According to data collected by Eurostat, 42 percent of plastic packaging waste was recycled in the EU in 2017, with percentage points that have increased for every country with the exception of Croatia. 

Surprisingly the best country in Europe for plastic packaging waste recycling wasn't Germany, named recycling world champion by the World Economic Forum in 2017, but Lithuania, followed by Bulgaria, Cyprus and Slovenia.

Plastic packaging waste recycling in EU Member States

Plastic packaging waste recycling in EU Member States

How has Lithuania, a country with less than three million inhabitants, become the most successful in Europe for plastic packaging waste recycling?

Lithuania launched a national deposit refund scheme (DRS) in 2016, providing large retail chains with over 1,000 machines that collect plastic packaging waste and send it directly to recycling centres for processing. 

The results of the deposit refund scheme exceeded government's expectations and got citizens, producers, importers and traders close together for the common goal of protecting the environment and reduce plastic waste.

Other Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, have become leaders in the recycling of plastic waste thanks to recent investments in new waste processing facilities that are meant to sustain the growth of a circular economy system.

Slovenian's capital Ljubljana, the first European capital to commit to a zero-waste goal, has led the country in its recycling revolution which has been outstanding considering 15 years ago Slovenia did no recycling at all.

Ljubljana has a door-to-door waste collection system in place, and two household waste recycling centres where citizens can dispose of their rubbish. The practice of reusing, separating, and recycling waste is very popular within the Slovenian population, proving that a social and cultural change is possible. Proactive engagement of the citizens and individual responsibility is key to the achievement of a successful recycling system there.

In the case of these countries, technology played a key role in supporting a more effective system of recycling multi-material waste. All EU member states will have to improve their practices to ensure all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, as proposed by the European Commission.