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German recycling system gets an overhaul

The Local · 3 May 2011, 09:28

Published: 03 May 2011 09:28 GMT+02:00

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.”

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

09:41 May 3, 2011 by pepsionice
After fifteen years of messing around with the German system....I can truly say that it would take a 20-page introduction manual to explain all of the little rules to this business. The cherry on this cake is the inspection guys who walk around on pick-up day and might open your can to find forbidden items and refuse the pick-up.....thus leaving you a full can and two-to-three weeks before the next pick-up (that means you start dumping your stuff at autobahn rest stops, at the office, or at the local train station waste can).

The worst period to mess with German waste disposal is always the week after Christmas because your paper can is overflowing and you have to store up your paper waste for another pick-up in the next weekly period.
11:08 May 3, 2011 by Portnoy
It's all such crap: modern trash sorting equipment negate the need to even sort -- it's a waste of time, energy and resources. The environment ministry even discovered this in a study (http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/abfallwirtschaft/nachhaltigkeit/dokumente/A_Abfall_Kessler.pdf) but waste companies don't want to make the investment.
11:29 May 3, 2011 by michael4096
@pepsionice

Maybe it's regional, but here we can take anything to the local hof. They charge for big pieces of furniture and compost but paper, electicals, metals, gelbezaken... no problem
12:04 May 3, 2011 by MrBowlocks
@Portnoy

You're missing the point. Of course it has nothing to do with sorting rubbish and everything to do with Germans needing to be told what to do. Initiative is bred out at an early age when despite the evidence of their own eyes that no traffic is coming, the decision of whether to cross the road is taken over by a lightbulb, backed up by armed police. You may scoff, but consider it next time you see an average German driver in an unexpected traffic situation, or any other situation that requires forward thinking. Like arriving at a checkout, and only then seaching for money, or simply stopping in doorways, completely oblivious to any obstruction they cause.

I've also seen with my own eyes all the meticulously sorted rubbish being tipped all together into the same incinerator.
13:17 May 3, 2011 by Angry Ami
Well I don't know where some of you guys live, but I live in BERLIN, and for the most part the system works, compared to back home, i.e., L.A., where there's no bin for paper, you can put plastic and glass in the same bin, but paper, anyway, blue=paper, yellow=plastic and packing material, green=white and dark glass, and black=trash,

the orange bin would be for old metal and home appliances, e.g., dvd player, radios etc., but in Berlin "BSR" is the public trash Co., so of course they want the exclusive contract, but Alba, the private Co. cried foul and accused Berlin senate of favoritism, so there's the dilemma, just last night on the local news it was announced that they have reached an agreement and it will take 2 years to hash out the details, 2 years?

jeez, but that's typical of Berlin, snails move faster, and it would be great if they could finally get the system up and running, our cellar has so much metal junk, and to try and get all that stuff to the nearest recycling hof would take at least a week, and I ain't got that kinda time, have to do things like work and pay the bills you know; a container in the yard would be perfect, not to mention that maybe some of my blöde neighbors who never out the right items in the right containers might like the visual aid of a BIG orange bin.
14:38 May 3, 2011 by Universalismus
Das reicht Deutschland! We get it, you recycle! now spread the love around the rest of Europa
16:26 May 3, 2011 by MrBowlocks
It's just occured to me! Theres no Bin Laden anymore! (Groan)
19:28 May 3, 2011 by catjones
One question I still ponder....our bins are Locked inside a fenced fortress inside a courtyard. Is this to keep people from stealing our trash?
19:46 May 3, 2011 by Landmine
We should have recycled Bin laden..... He of course woud go in the Restmüll can....
23:07 May 3, 2011 by taiwanluthiers
It's more to keep people from throwing random garbage into the wrong container which would result in a lot of frustration.
00:55 May 4, 2011 by Wobinidan
It's interesting to hear that Berliners have no problem understanding the orange bins, because although electrical items are meant to be prohibited, the orange bin in my hof usually has an old computer in it.

Anyway, I live in a small apartment. We already separate paper and glass from our regular trash, and we don't have space for 5 trash cans, so all the packaging goes in with the regular trash I'm afraid.
02:04 May 4, 2011 by harrylatour
If it keeps the peeps happy it's ok.If you really want to know what happens to all your hard work sorting out the recycle when the system is overloaded during holiday times,,,I suggest you all ''look away now'' to coin the phrase of the footy pundits!!!
11:28 May 5, 2011 by Angry Ami
@Wobinidan

Well those are the Berliners who aren't color blind that is, and people put anything in the trash, somebody hat put a whole dining set in the black bin and of course BSR didn't take it, and the bottom line is will the landlord pay for the extra bin? sure he will and pass the cost on to the tenants, whoopie.
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