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German recycling system gets an overhaul

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Photo: DPA
09:28 CEST+02:00
Confused by Germany's recycling system? It just got even more complicated with an orange bin. But as Alexander Bakst discovers, Germans are taking the new element in their stride.

Foreigners in Germany sometimes express bewilderment at the country's recycling system. A majority of German households keep their garbage separated by paper, packaging, glass, compost and conventional waste.

“It was annoying in the beginning,” says Dennis Turner, a Jamaican-born New Yorker who runs a restaurant in Berlin called Jamerica. But after 26 years of life in Germany and two years running the restaurant, “I got used to it, and I think it's for a good cause.”

One particular item of trash that leaves many newcomers baffled: the wax-coated cardboard milk carton. Does it go in the blue bin for paper? Or the yellow bin for plastic? Perhaps it belongs in the normal waste bin?

The answer is simple, according to Berlin's public waste-management facility BSR. “Milk cartons and other so-called Tetra Paks bear the Green-Dot logo and therefore belong in the yellow bin,” explains spokeswoman Sabine Thümler.

Mystery solved. But the system that has given Germany the highest recycling rate in Europe is about to receive an overhaul, potentially complicating things further with yet another bin.

The German government is working on a new framework for waste management in an effort to increase its recycling targets and bring the system into line with EU law. As part of the proposed legislation, an additional recycling bin may be introduced for “materially similar non-packaging.”

Sound complicated? Not for Germans, apparently. Since the beginning of the year, Berlin has introduced just such a bin, the so-called Orange Box. “A test run in 2009 was quite successful, and people understood very quickly what goes in the bin,” Thümler says.

“We use a lot of pictographs so that it doesn't matter what your native language is,” she added.

Valuable recyclables

The Orange Box was designed for plastic and metal items that do not constitute packaging – an old frying pan, for example, or a broken plastic toy. Until now, residents could only recycle these items by bringing them to the nearest depot.

Because such items can now be conveniently recycled in the bin downstairs, “things will likely become even easier for citizens,” says Jörg Lacher, head of communications at the German Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Disposal (BVSE), which represents the interests of private waste-management companies.

As per the latest draft of the law, electronics will still need to be recycled at local depots. Due to various harmful substances contained in most electronics, negotiators agree that this is unlikely to change in the final bill.

According to the Environment Ministry, the main goal of the new law is to encourage sustainability and increase the efficiency of Germany's recycling system. At the same time, commercial enterprises have long since recognized the intrinsic value of certain recyclable goods.

Employees at the Jamerica restaurant in Berlin make sure to recycle the cooking oil, which is sold to a private recycling company for about €1.60 per litre. “The company, of course, they make bigger money from that because they can sell it again,” Turner says.

The same goes for metal and other recyclables, although profit margins tend to be paper-thin in these sectors. “The markets for these materials are decidedly volatile,” says BSR's Thümler. She cites the plummeting price for recycled paper during the financial crisis as a recent example.

Communal facilities battle private contractors

The proposed legislation still requires the approval of the German Bundestag before it is put on the books. And right now, taxpayer-funded communal disposers and their private-sector counterparts are feuding over the details of the final bill.

Some communities worry that the new law would drive valuable recyclables into the hands of private contractors while communal facilities are left with the financial burden of collecting them.

In Warendorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, local party official Karl-Wilhelm Hild of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, called the draft a “special-interest law” benefiting the private waste-management business.

According to the BVSE, the proposed law would provide an additional seven kilograms of recycled material per person each year. “If these seven kilos are worth so much, why are they currently being incinerated?” Lacher asks.

“The point is to recycle more material than before, and that should be done by the companies that are best-suited for the job through contract bidding and healthy competition,” he says. Indeed, BVSE has argued that the draft law in its current form would stifle competition in the sector by providing communal facilities with a “legal shield.”

BSR rejects this notion. “That's nonsense, there is no legal shield,” Thümler says. “Communal facilities are necessarily the fall-back position: there needs to be a reliable disposal service, and that requires planning security and adequate financing.”

Thümler argues that the waste-management process – from collection through processing to disposal – is not a profitable business. The Orange Box for potentially valuable plastics and metals will not change this dynamic, she says: “Taken as a whole, they are recyclables not in an economical but in an ecological sense.”

Story continues below…

Pre-sorting to become mandatory

Germany already enjoys the highest recycling rate in the 27-country EU bloc. In 2009, the latest year for which data is available, Germans recycled 48 percent of municipal waste and composted an additional 18 percent, according to a report by the European statistics bureau Eurostat.

The new law would raise the bar even higher. By 2020, 65 percent of all household trash and 70 percent of construction materials would have to be recycled, composted or reused. This would be achieved in part by making a legal requirement out of Germany's all-too-common trash pre-sorting.

Communal facilities would thus be required to provide the means for people to sort their waste. In its current form, the draft law would require five separate bins by 2016: one each for paper, glass, compost, and packaging, plus the newly created bin for plastic and metal “non-packaging”.

For Germany's business owners, the issue of communal versus private waste management may not be so important. As opposed to private households, businesses like Turner's Jamerica restaurant are free to choose who picks up their trash.

Turner's choice is clear: “With the private disposers, you have better control over the process because they're smaller,” he says.

“If you have a communal facility, that usually means big,” Turner says, “which means they wouldn't have the time that private groups have to make sure that things are being carried out as they're supposed to.”

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