Top 10 countries doing the most to tackle plastic pollution

Written by Lori Campbell on 26th Jul 2021

Plastic takes between 500 and 1,000 years to completely degrade. As a result, ALL of the plastic that has ever been manufactured or used by us can still be found in some form on our planet. Think of it this way: every toothbrush you have ever used is still out there – somewhere.

A shocking 40 per cent of plastic is used only once before being discarded. And only nine per cent of plastic has EVER been recycled. It’s no wonder then that we have now reached a crisis point.

Of the 300 million tonnes of plastic waste the world produces every year (the same as the weight of the entire world population), eight million tonnes end up in the oceans, killing marine life and entering the human food chain. Plastic also accelerates climate change by emitting greenhouse gases at every stage of its lifecycle.

In the UK, the government says it “aims to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.” But around the world, countries are taking far more drastic measures to hold back the rising tide of plastic pollution.

Here are our top 10:

1. Canada

In May 2021, Canada declared plastic a “toxic” substance, paving the way for its proposed ban on most single-use plastics by the end of the year. This would be the most ambitious move yet by any country in the war against plastic.

Canada, which has the world’s longest coastline at 151,019 miles and a quarter of the world’s fresh water, currently recycles only around nine percent of its disposable plastics. Without a drastic change, it would be on track to throw away $11 billion (£8.6 billion) worth of disposable plastic by 2030.

Announcing the ban, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “To be honest, as a dad it is tough trying to explain this to my kids. How do you explain dead whales washing up on beaches across the world, their stomachs jam-packed with plastic bags?

“How do I tell them that against all odds, you will find plastic at the very deepest point in the Pacific Ocean?”

2. Rwanda

Rwanda became the world’s first ‘plastic-free’ nation in 2009, 10 years after it introduced a ban on all plastic bags and plastic packaging. Anyone who is caught with a plastic item faces a jail sentence of up to six months.

On entering a border post into the country, vehicles are searched and any plastic bags or packaging are confiscated before they enter the country.

3. India

India shocked the world in 2017 when it announced it would eliminate all single-use plastic by 2022.

With a population of 1.35 billion people, the world’s fastest-growing country is responsible for 500,000 tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste reaching the ocean every year. Around eighty percent of plastic in India is discarded as waste, and more than forty percent of this goes uncollected.

The proposed first phase of the ban, set to begin on 30 September 2021, will target thin plastic carrier bags (the hardest to recycle). On 1 January 2022, six categories of single-use plastic – including earbuds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks and polystyrene (PS) for decoration – are to be banned.

And a third and final stage, to take effect on 1 July 2022, will see plastic plates, glasses, cutlery, plastic stirrers, packaging films on sweet boxes, invitation cards, cigarette packets, and thin plastic banners outlawed.

The policy is, however, widely expected to be met with fierce opposition from plastics manufacturers across the country.

4. Kenya

Set in August 2017, Kenya’s plastic bag ban is widely regarded as the strictest in the world. Anyone found producing, selling – or even just carrying – a plastic bag faces up to four years’ imprisonment, or a fine of up to $40,000 (£31,000). The only exemption is for manufacturers who use polythene to wrap products.

The ban was set after Kenyans were found to be using 24 million plastic bags each month. The United Nations’ Environment Programme discovered that cows slaughtered in Nairobi regularly had up to 20 bags in their stomachs, sparking fears over plastic contamination in the food chain.

The ban appears to be working with a dramatic decline in the number of bags littering Kenya’s shanty towns – particularly “flying toilets”, where residents defecate in a plastic bag, tie it up and then throw it on to the tin roofs.

In June 2020, Kenya also banned the use of all single-use plastics in protected areas.

5. Germany

In Germany, a deposit return scheme was introduced in 2003 where customers pay a 25 cent (22 pence) deposit on every bottle of soft or alcoholic drink. This excludes milk, baby products and medical liquids.

The move has seen almost 99 per cent of the country’s plastic bottles returned for recycling. Since the introduction of the scheme, an estimated 1.2 billion containers have been diverted from landfill.

Glass bottles are also subject to the scheme and typically have a deposit of between eight and 15 cents (seven to 13 pence) added to their cost. Once they are collected, they are typically sent back to manufacturers for cleaning and refilling.

In July 2021, Germany banned the sale of single-use plastic straws, cutlery, cotton buds and food containers in line with an EU-wide directive intended to reduce plastic waste.

6. Norway

Norway is another nation to have seen success with a deposit return scheme. An impressive 97 per cent of the nation’s plastic bottles have been returned for recycling since the scheme began in 2014.

The Norwegian government has set up more than 3,500 reverse vending machines and 11,500 registered collection points across the nation to encourage residents to recycle. Up to 92 per cent of the bottles recycled hold material that is of such high quality it can be re-used again in drink bottles sometimes more than 50 times.

This improvement in recycling infrastructure was paid for by packaging manufacturers, with the government taxing firms for producing single-use packaging. They are also made to cover the cost of plastic waste collection and recycling.

7. France

In 2016, France became the first country in the world to ban the manufacture and sale of single-use plastic cups, cutlery, plates, and takeaway food boxes. The law requires all disposable tableware to be made from 50 per cent bio-sourced materials that can be composted at home. This rises to 60 per cent by 2025.

The legislation was passed after statistics from the French Association of Health and Environment revealed that only one per cent of the 4.73 billion single-use plastic cups thrown away each year in France were recycled.

France also banned shops from distributing plastic bags in 2016 in a bid to reduce the 17 billion which were used nationwide annually. Of those 17 billion bags, eight billion were estimated to be littered annually before the ban. Most shops now offer either paper bags or reusable plastic alternatives, at a cost of a few cents each, and encourage customers to reuse their bags.

8. Chile

In 2018 Chile became the first South American nation to ban plastic bags, excluding bin liners.

While the original bill was meant to only cover the Patagonian region in the south of the country, it was extended to the entire nation a year later.

The Association of Plastic Manufacturers (Asiplas) estimated that Chile was using more than 3.4 billion plastic bags a year – the equivalent of each resident using more than 200 annually. The ban has seen bags replaced with sustainable alternatives such as paper, cotton or sugarcane variants.

9. Sweden

Known as one of the world’s best recycling nations, Sweden is following the policy of a ‘No Plastic Ban, Instead More Plastic Recycling.’ The reason for this is that Sweden has the world’s best recycling system.

Most of Sweden’s rubbish gets burned in incinerators. The system is so good that less than one percent of Sweden’s household waste goes into landfill.

10. Peru

Single-use plastics are banned in Peru’s 76 natural and cultural protected areas, from Machu Picchu to Manu to Huascarán, as well as its national museums. The ban was announced as a Supreme Decree by Peru’s Environment Minister Fabiola Muñoz, and signed by President Martín Vizcarra, in November 2018.

At the world-famous Machu Picchu, tourists were producing an average of 14 tons of solid waste per day, much of it plastic bottles and other single-use packaging.

Peru’s Congress has also passed a law to phase out single-use plastic bags across the country. According to Peru’s Environment Ministry, the country uses 947,000 tons of plastic each year, while 75 percent is thrown out and only 0.3 percent is recycled.


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