Examples from Europe: How Lithuania is becoming a leader in recycling


Different European countries top the charts for recycling leaders depending on the methodology used. If you look at the European country with the most noticeable increase in household waste recycling, it is Lithuania. It saw an impressive growth of 914% between 2010 and 2019. In 2010, the state had less than a 5% recycling rate. Lithuania showed a significant increase in the years since, with the recycling rate jumping to 49.7% by 2019, giving an overall average rate of 33.8% over the years studied.

How did Lithuania become a leader in recycling?‎

Much of Lithuania’s success is due to the introduction of a deposit refund scheme. Since 2016, customers pay 10 euro cents extra when buying drinks in plastic bottles. After use, they can be returned to reverse vending machines installed in over 1,000 stores across the country. These machines issue a voucher that can be redeemed in the respective store. What is collected from the machines is sent directly to the recycling centers. By the end of 2017, 92% of all bottles and cans sold in Lithuania were returned through such machines. This is almost three times more than before the scheme started. The overall recycling rate of plastic packaging has increased by almost 20%.

The results of the scheme exceeded the government’s expectations and brought citizens, manufacturers, importers and traders together for the common goal of protecting the environment and reducing plastic waste. Thus, in 2017, Lithuania was the champion in the European Union with 74% recycled plastic waste compared to an average level of 42% for the EU. The difference can also be seen visually – beaches, forests and cities have become cleaner. Empty bottles and cans have suddenly become valuable since the scheme was introduced, so people are more likely to take them home from camping rather than leave them in the wild.

Easy and convenient recycling system

In 2016, Lithuania achieved its 2030 targets for packaging waste recycling. In addition to the plastic collection scheme, the high rate of municipal recycling has been achieved by combining different tactics. First, the government focuses a lot on education on environmental topics. In elementary school, children learn how to recycle properly. Celebrations and festivals focused on sustainability are organized. Multiple communication campaigns encouraging people to recycle. These programs have been running successfully for years, educating people in Lithuania about sustainability and environmentally friendly living.

Second, the network of recycling containers is very wide and convenient for citizens. Everyone has an easily accessible waste bin with clear markings and instructions on where to put what.

Third, the government offers financial incentives to encourage recycling. Residents have to pay taxes to dispose of mixed waste, but the disposal of recyclables is free. This is because in effect recycling is paid for by the companies that market recyclable packaging. The more waste residents recycle, the less they have to pay in garbage disposal taxes.

Electronic system for monitoring the movement of waste

Lithuania has implemented the GPAIS electronic system through which the government can track the movement of companies’ waste.

There are laws that determine which businesses must register with the system. This usually depends on the annual amount of waste produced and the toxicity of the waste. Each type of waste generated must then be registered in the system. In this way, inspectors can see what was done with the waste in the company and how much waste it generated. An additional benefit of the system is in case of dangerous events (e.g. fire), because then it is easy to determine how much toxic waste is in the building.

Room for improvement

Although there is a very high recycling rate, Lithuania still lacks recycling companies where recycled materials can be turned into products. At the moment, there are also no systems for converting waste into energy and heat production, as there are in many other countries, but the government has planned investments in this direction.




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