Top 10 countries doing the most to tackle plastic pollution

Written by Lori Campbell on 29th Jan 2024

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 – the most ambitious move yet by any country in the war against plastic. The move legally paved the way for its ban on most single-use plastics (including plastic bags, cutlery, foodservice ware, stir sticks and straws) by the end of this year. Plastic ring carriers, which typically hold cans of drink together and are a lethal hazard for sea life, will also be banned from the end of 2024.

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?”

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 drastic change, it would be on track to throw away $11 billion (£8.6 billion) worth of disposable plastic by 2030. The government has set out a “Zero plastic waste vision” to tackle the challenge.

2. Rwanda

In 2008, Rwanda became the world’s first ‘plastic-free’ nation, 10 years after it introduced a ban on all plastic bags and plastic packaging. Unlike many other countries, the African nation is strict at enforcing its ban. Anyone caught with a plastic item in the country 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. Plastic bags and packaging are taken from tourists at the airport.

Rwanda is the global leader, along with Norway, in a High Ambition Coalition aiming to raise ambition to develop a Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution by 2040.

3. Kenya

Kenya banned single-use plastic bags in 2017 – a move that was lauded as groundbreaking. The national environmental authority says 80 per cent of the public have complied with the ban. Not surprising when 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 led to 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 2020, single-use plastics were prohibited in protected areas such as parks and forests.

However, despite the success of the bag ban, it has not been enough to eliminate the country’s overall struggles with plastic pollution.  The ban did not include many other forms of plastic, including bottles, rubbish bags and takeaway containers.

4. Germany

In Germany, a deposit return scheme was introduced in 2003 where customers pay a 25 cent (22 pence) deposit on every single-use plastic bottle. This excludes milk, baby products, most wine bottles, and medical liquids (which can mostly be recycled).

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. The country also has an extremely high 82 per cent recycling rate for all packaging.

This year, Germany brought in a a ‘Single-Use Plastics levy’  for single-use plastics released on the market. First payments expected to be due in 2025. As a result, producers of single-use plastic items will be responsible for waste management and recycling, cleaning of public areas, as well as education and consumer awareness.

5. Norway

Norway, considered a “recycling role model,” is another nation to have seen success with a deposit return scheme. An impressive 95 per cent of the nation’s plastic bottles have been returned for recycling since the scheme began in 2014.

Norwegian blockchain company Empower devised a system which allows people to exchange plastic waste for tokens at certified recycling stations. The system is now in place in several countries, including India, Libya and Sri Lanka. In addition to reducing plastic pollution, it helps to combat poverty by providing an economic incentive for people to collect and deliver plastic waste.

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.

6. France

In 2016, France became the first country in the world to ban the manufacture and sale of single-use plastic cups, plates, and utensils. 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.

In January 2023, the French Government passed a new law banning the use of single-use packaging in fast food restaurants.

7. 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.

In 2022, Chile banned the delivery by food companies of single-use straws, mixers, forks, spoons, knives and chopsticks, as well as expanded polystyrene products.

Most of Chile’s neighbourhood convenience stores have refill machines where customers can bring reusable containers to refill daily essentials such as shampoo, washing-up liquid and detergent.

8. Sweden

Sweden has the world’s best recycling system; a recycling station can be found within at most 300 meters from any residential area. 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.

In January 2022, Sweden introduced a ban on certain single-use plastic products and from January next year plastic cups will also be banned. Its goal is to reduce consumption of single-use plastic by 50 per cent between 2022 and 2026.

9. 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.

10. India

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

However, despite the ban being brought in as planned, plastics are still in rampant circulation across the country. The government has been criticised for not providing any guidance for stopping the use of single-use plastics, or imposing any fines on those found using it.


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