The Hidden Beauty Of Europe’s Super-Efficient Recycling Empire

Paul Bulteel visited more than 50 recycling plants to document the stunning size and efficiency of these little-seen worlds.

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. For photographer Paul Bulteel, Europe’s super-efficient recycling plants offer an embarrassment of such riches. In Bulteel’s new book, Cycle & Recycle, the Belgian photographer traveled to recycling plants across Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France to capture what he calls the “unreal aesthetics” of their strange and flotsam beauty.


Bulteel says he’s always been fascinated with the relationship between humans and the urban environments they create–often entirely without intention. To him, there’s no better way to illustrate how humans have accidentally transformed the environment than the disposal of trash. Belgium has a staggeringly efficient recycling program: The country recycles 80% of its total packaging waste and 41% of its plastic a year, compared to America’s paltry 14%. But despite this, Bulteel found himself in awe of the scope and size of local waste collection sites–each a giant, self-contained world with its own fascinating design that almost no one ever gets to see.

So he started photographing them. Over the years, he has traveled to over 50 different waste management and recycling facilities across Europe, documenting a diverse range of domestic and industrial products that are collected and recycled or reused at these plants. Paper, glass, furniture, appliances, batteries, tires, even gypsum and latex–it seems there’s a recycling plant for everything we throw out.

Through Bulteel’s lens, each recycling plant is an alien world to itself, whether made up of crushed mountains of pastel car wrecks, compressed cubes of pink and orange tubing, or rainbow hills of shredded foam rubber. The point of this exercise is not to just “take pictures of trash.” Instead, argues Bulteel, there’s great beauty in recycling. The pictures in Cycle & Recycle are rarely depressing. Even his most mundane shots have splashes of color, or a satisfying geometric purity. These images refuse to wallow in the excess of humankind’s wastefulness, and instead, offer a glimpse at the sheer scale and efficiency of what humans can accomplish when we tackle a problem head-on.

Paul Bulteel’s Cycle & Recycle can be purchased directly from the publisher here.

All Photos: Paul Bulteel