In January, the world dumps a huge amount of plastic waste. In the UK, we get rid of an extra 30%, around three million tonnes. The majority goes to landfill.
You may not know, but little Lithuania comes out as the best in class when it comes to recycling. It recycles at record levels; almost 75% of its plastic waste was recycled in 2017, the highest percentage in Europe. The EU average was 42% and the worst performers, including Finland and France, came in at under 30%.
Much of Lithuania’s success is due to a deposit refund scheme, introduced in 2016. Customers pay €0.10 extra when buying drinks containers. After use, these can be fed into reverse vending machines installed in shops, which return the deposit. The contents are then sent direct to recycling centres. By the end of 2017, 92% of all bottles and cans sold in Lithuania were being returned, close to triple the amount before the scheme began. The overall plastic packaging recycling rate increased by almost 20%.
The government says the scheme has ignited a previously hidden love for recycling in its citizens. Nearly 90% of Lithuanians have used the machines at least once. However, Lithuanians do not tend to describe themselves as eco-warriors. A 2017 survey by the European Commission found they were less likely than most EU countries to regard environmental issues as “very important”.
The eagerness of Lithuanian recyclers may come, not from a love of the Earth, but from their low net worth. Lithuania has the second-most unequal income distribution in Europe. A tenth of the population gets by on less than €245 a month. In big cities, it is common to see people pulling recyclable items out of bins to take to the machines. There’s a historical precedent too: in the Soviet Union, bottle collection was often full-time work for those without employment.
Less litter and money for people who need it, seems like a win-win proposition, but it might not, in fact, be best for the environment in the long term. In Germany, where a similar, widely used refund deposit scheme has been in place since 2003, the earnings from keeping the deposits from unreturned bottles seem to have discouraged producers from switching to more sustainable packaging.