March 24, 2022

In numbers: Europe's plastic problem

Europe's still only recycling 14% of its plastic waste.

Freya Pratty

2 min read

Underwater pollution:- A discarded plastic carrier bag drifting in a tropical, blue water ocean

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The world’s producing twice as much plastic waste as it was two decades ago, and plastics account for 3.4% of global emissions.

In Europe, every person uses an average 114kg of plastic per year. That’s less than the USA (where it’s 221kg) but notably higher than some other regions (in both Japan and Korea it’s around 69kg). That’s according to a new report from the OECD.


The pandemic led to a slight drop in plastic use. 2.2% less plastic was used globally in 2020 than 2019 but, as economic activity has resumed, plastic use has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

So how much of that is recycled?

According to data from Europa, as plastic use has increased, the percentage that’s recycled has increased at a similar rate.  

14% sounds low but it is comparatively good — it’s actually the highest proportion in the world, with the global average at 9%. It’s much better than the USA, for example, where 4% of plastic waste is recycled. 

What’s being done?

A number of countries have brought in bans on single-use plastics. A ban in the European Union also came into effect in July last year, preventing the sale of a list of items made from single-use plastics where sustainable alternatives are available (things like cotton buds, plastic cutlery and straws).

It’s part of the EU’s plastic strategy, aimed at moving the continent towards a circular economy.

Individual countries are also enforcing tighter legislation, with France banning single-use plastics on most fruit and vegetables in January, and Spain planning to do the same next year.

Where do startups fit in?

Startups across Europe are working to develop alternatives to single use plastic. They’re using everything from wool to sea algae to produce new packaging materials that don’t rely on plastic. 

There’s also a whole bioplastics industry — where companies like Ginko Bioworks and Zymergen use bacteria to produce plastic alternatives through a form of fermentation. 

Other companies are working on improving the recycling process for plastic. Cirplus, a German startup, has built a software procurement system that matches companies with waste plastic to those who could use it. 

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Freya Pratty

Freya Pratty is a senior reporter at Sifted. She covers climate tech, writes our weekly Climate Tech newsletter and works on investigations. Follow her on X and LinkedIn