Only 20 percent of plastic bottles sorted for recycling in Czechia actually end up in recycling centres

What really happens to your waste after you’ve sorted it and dutifully put it in your local recycling container? The Czech Environment Ministry attempted to find out via a unique experiment – at least for one very specific type of rubbish. They put tracking devices on 100 PET bottles and put them in recycling bins in locations all around the country to see where they ended up after three months – and the results were surprising.

My partner and I are keen waste sorters and pride ourselves on hardly ever having to take out our mixed waste because there is so little of it. We compost our organic waste and dutifully sort everything else into paper, plastic, glass and metal.

But plastic waste still makes up the biggest proportion of our sorted rubbish, despite our efforts to reduce it. And so every time we take our plastic recycling to our nearest yellow container in Prague, we wonder, ‘Will this actually get recycled?’

I was therefore naturally very curious to hear about an experiment conducted by the Environment Ministry and data company Adastra Lab, in which 100 PET bottles around the country were chipped and tracked for three months to see where they ended up. The results were presented at a press conference in Prague last week.

As things currently stand, 75 percent of plastic PET bottles sold in Czechia get sorted for recycling, but the percentages cited below are meant to be from the total number of bottles sold, rather than only from the ones that get put in recycling bins. Here’s Environment Minister Petr Hladík:

“After three months, almost 40 percent were in some kind of collection yard or sorting facility, waiting to see what will happen to them. Twenty percent ended up in recycling centres, where, although we can’t say for sure, there is a high probability that the material was actually recycled.”

So far so good – but there were some less positive findings.

Petr Hladík | Photo: Office of Czech Government

“Unfortunately, 12 percent of the bottles ended up on a rubbish tip – although it’s illegal for waste companies to dump plastic that’s been put in yellow containers on scrap heaps. But some waste collection companies broke Czech law and did just that."

And then, just when you thought it couldn't get any worse:

“The biggest surprise for me was that 4 per cent ended up somewhere outside – although they were originally put in yellow containers. One ended up in a private garden, one in a meadow, one in a petrol station. And something else interesting – almost 10 percent of the bottles were exported out of the Czech Republic, most often to France and Slovakia, where we don’t know what happened to them.”

But, the environment ministry says, a deposit system on bottles should massively improve things. Not only can you then be certain how many bottles are actually sold on the Czech market, you can also easily find out how many of those bottles are returned in a state where they can actually be recycled and reused in the food industry.

And results from other countries show that introducing a deposit system for plastic bottles dramatically increases their chances of being recycled, as people are more likely to put them in recycling bins in the first place. In neighbouring Slovakia, which introduced a deposit system in 2022, they were able to increase the proportion of plastic bottles sorted for recycling from 60 to 92 percent within two years.

Czechia is hoping to introduce a deposit system for PET bottles and metal drinks cans from 2026. But the environment ministry stresses that in the meantime, you should continue sorting your rubbish, as this is always the first step to giving it the best chance possible of being recycled.