How would you feel if someone went through your trash to check for recycling?

Perhaps you’re really good at separating it out, so you wouldn’t mind. Maybe you’re generally pretty good, but the odd can or jar catches you out sometimes. Perhaps you don’t recycle anything at all.

In Swansea, the second-largest city in Wales, such checks are a reality, as the council strives to boost recycling and widen participation. The move comes after a Wales-wide analysis showed that around half of what people throw out could be recycled.

Under the new scheme, people who put paper, cardboard, cans, tins, glass, plastic containers or food in their general waste will be warned and then fined as much as $130.

Baby steps

“A small change can make a big difference,” the council says. “By taking your recycling out of the black bags and using your weekly recycling collection service, you can help us reduce waste, cut costs, and protect the environment.”

Such dedication has helped propel Wales to the top of global recycling lists. The Welsh Government’s National Strategy, Towards Zero Waste, set a 70% recycling and composting target for 2025, with a view to achieving zero waste in 2050.

 Swansea’s steady improvement on recycling.
Swansea’s steady improvement on recycling.
Image: Swansea Council report

Awareness of non-recyclable waste and our environmental impact has risen in prominence in recent years, as the global population expands.

With the future of the planet at stake, embracing a circular economy – where resources are kept in use for as long as possible, and then recovered and regenerated – has the potential to unlock trillions of dollars, according to the World Economic Forum’s circular economy initiative.

“The transition towards a circular economy is estimated to represent a $4.5 trillion global growth opportunity by 2030 while helping to restore our natural systems,” according to Naoko Ishii CEO and Chair of the Global Environment Facility, and Frans Van Houten, CEO of Philips, who spearhead the initiative. “We have all made progress in advancing this transition, yet we remain frustrated and challenged by the slow pace and scale of change to date.”

Germany leads

Comparing the recycling rates of different countries can be tricky, since there are variations in the way the calculations are put together. Germany comes top of a detailed comparative analysis by Eunomia and Resource Media. It’s followed by Singapore, Wales, South Korea and Austria.

The top countries all have specific and targeted policies in place, including making it easy for people to recycle, setting clear targets and policy goals, providing good funding and incentives for citizens to recycle more, according to the report.

 Best in class recyclers.
Best in class recyclers.
Image: Comparative analysis by Eunomia and Resource Media

In Swansea, inspectors will shake, but not open, the black garbage bags to determine whether non-recyclable materials are inside. The move has been criticized by some, who say monitoring trash invades people’s privacy and that employing people to scrutinize garbage bags is a waste of council money.

Changing behaviour

Others question whether the items are actually recycled at all, after a Freedom of Information request by the BBC revealed thousands of tonnes of recyclable waste in the UK was incinerated or buried in landfills instead.

Swansea Council says reducing black-bag waste at the kerbside by 15% would divert tonnes from landfill, and has the potential to save almost $400,000 so would more than pay for itself. It also says black-bag searches are just the same as the ones already underway to counteract fly tipping.

This is “seeking a behavioural change”, the council said in its proposal. “This is to reduce waste, reduce costs and help protect the environment."