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Return To Sender


German waste being separated for recycling.
Return to sender
From food packaging to old cars, German manufacturers are being ordered to take back their junk.
But is it working? Ute Sprenger reports from Berlin.

As I write, many thousands of dedicated Germans are rinsing out their yoghurt pots before tossing them into their colour-coded waste bins.

Consumers are expected to sort and clean packaging, which the producer then takes back for recycling. Shampoo containers, polythene bags, empty aluminium cans, even chocolate-bar wrappings – all of these have changed identity from ‘rubbish’ to ‘resources’. Blue, yellow, green and grey garbage cans and refuse bags in backyards bear testament to a real commitment to waste separation and recycling in Germany today.

And, unlike the situation in many countries, this public commitment is backed by government legislation. In 1991 a ruling called the Packaging Ordinance made it the duty of manufacturers, suppliers and retailers to ‘take back’ different kinds of packaging, no matter how large or small.

Consumers reacted promptly, leaving mountains of plastic and paper trash and even empty bottles or cans behind them in the supermarkets. Overwhelmed by this sudden unwanted deluge, manufacturers and retailers got together to set up a central body that would handle packaging material collected throughout Germany. They established the Duales System Deutschland (DSD) – a private enterprise which collects and sorts glass, paper, cardboard, aluminium, tins, cartons and plastics.

The scheme is financed by licence fees that manufacturers and suppliers pay to the Duales System for the right to label their products with a ‘Green Dot’. This indicates to the consumer that they may throw the emptied package into special Duales System garbage bins.

‘The regulation symbolizes a new approach to the issue of garbage,’ says Olaf Bandt who is in charge of Waste Avoidance within BUND, an environmental group with 200,000 members.

Domestic waste decreased by 14 per cent from 1990 to 1993. Packaging waste also went down 15 per cent during this time, partly because manufacturers have been moving away from lavish wrapping material for their products.

Then, in October 1996, The Waste Avoidance, Recycling and Disposal Act came into effect with the aim of getting Germany ‘into a cycle economy’.

‘Responsibility for a product must not end with its manufacturing,’ said Environment Minister Angela Merkel. ‘It must contain environmentally friendly disposal, which mainly means re-use and recycling.’

The law stresses that those who manufacture, trade in or consume goods are all responsible for the waste produced and marks a shift away from the traditional relationship whereby industry simply produces waste and expects local authorities to get rid of it.

The act also calls upon manufacturers to design their products in such a way as to reduce the amount of waste generated. And it aims to monitor what happens to waste, so that huge quantities can’t just ‘go missing’ – like the 6,000 tons of plastic material that ‘went missing’ under the Duales System. Finally, the law includes an obligation to ‘take back’ products and to recycle or dispose of them in an environmentally sound way. What the legislators want is for products to have a long life and for recycled raw materials to be used for manufacturing.

But before the act can be fully implemented a complex network of about 30 regulations will have to be worked out and this is not expected to be finalized until 1999.

Some parts of German industry reacted to the new law even before it came into force. Waste from industrial production has decreased by 20 per cent since 1990. And ‘take-back’ is already well established in some areas.

‘We have been taking back equipment for ten years,’ says a spokesperson from Siemens Nixdorf, trend-setter in the field of electronic scrap. The 80 employees in the Paderborn Remarketing and Recycling Centre – founded in 1993 and the first of its kind in Germany – are not only dismantling the equipment but checking whether it might be marketable second hand. Some years ago the corporation designed and built the first ‘Eco-personal computer’ which is more environmentally friendly in production, designed for a longer life and runs on less energy. According to Siemens Nixdorf all of their personal computers today are 90-per-cent recyclable. In fact the corporation’s computers come at the top of BUND’s ‘Environmental Computer List’ – although BUND qualifies this by saying ‘every new personal computer is one computer too many’.

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The car industry also appears to have been quick off the mark. There are roughly 40 million cars on the road in Germany of which about two million are scrapped annually. In February 1996 automobile producers agreed on a ‘voluntary commitment’ to environmentally sound recovery of cars – free of charge – providing they were less than 12 years old. This pre-empts a law that is due to come into force in April 1998.

Car recovery, including overhauling and re-use of spare parts, has become a significant branch of the industry. About three-quarters of cars are currently recycled in some way, the remaining quarter disposed of either by incineration or landfill. The new law is likely to increase the recycling rate to 85 per cent by 2002. By 2015 cars should be 95- per-cent recoverable.

When an old car goes for recycling, first the liquids such as oil, gasoline and brake fluids are removed, then dismantling begins. While the metals – about 75 per cent of the vehicle – can be recycled, the plastic is often shredded and put in a landfill along with other hazardous material.

In recent years the number of different plastics has been reduced and the latest generation of cars is more ‘dismantle-friendly’ than its predecessors. For example, Opel uses just 5 kinds of plastic nowadays compared with 20 previously. To aid dismantling, Volkswagen has started using different colours for different materials in at least one of its models.

All of this seems very positive and innovative. However, it is much more woolly and half-hearted than it looks. For a start, no take-back quotas have been produced. Second, the new regulation only applies to cars of the future, those registered from this year on, so that cars currently on the road may still end up being junked. Third, it only includes cars up to 12 years of age – which does not act as an incentive to people to maintain and keep their cars for as long as possible.

But there is another more fundamental reason why many people are sceptical of the motor industry’s ‘voluntary commitment’. It does nothing to address the basic problem. The motor industry is fabulously wasteful of natural resources and is a tremendous polluter, both directly and indirectly. For all their green rhetoric, companies like BMW and Daimler Benz are still determinedly churning out exemplars of ‘dinosaur technology’ – 180-horsepower gas-guzzlers that are sustainable neither in terms of resources nor their impact on climate change.

The fact remains that, in spite of the presence of laws, the changes are being shaped by industrialists rather than law-makers.

There is a lot of money to be made out of recycling and waste disposal. Indeed, it is considered one of Germany’s most important growth markets, with an annual turnover of $40 billion which is expected to top $100 billion by 2005.

Domestic waste accounts for only 13 per cent of this; the lion’s share comes from trade and industry. So big money can be made by companies contracted by business to ‘take back’ products or dispose of waste. With so many private players in the game, monitoring the tracks of disposal becomes increasingly difficult. ‘If the job has to be done as cheaply as possible, then you take a rickety old truck with a stinking exhaust in which to transport it,’ warns Sabine Thümler, Speaker of the Berlin Municipality.

What is needed is not legislation that follows in the wake of half-hearted, green-seeming, voluntary commitments from industry, but hard regulations with real bite. This is unlikely to happen within the soft framework of Germany’s new waste laws.

Taking waste disposal out of public hands and putting it into private hands, according to Thümler, carries the potential for ‘a crash into an ecological Stone Age’. She says: ‘If you are working in this area you have to have high ecological standards.’ This is not something normally associated with the business sector.

Trusting manufacturers and retailers to control themselves voluntarily, and to commission private firms to recycle or dispose of their waste, may not enhance producer responsibility but actually perpetuate current, and unsustainable, trends of overproduction and consumption.

Damage limitation is not enough. Ultimately, what we need is an integrated environmental policy with incentives to reduce both the use of raw materials and the potential for harm.

Ute Sprenger is a publicist and consultant specializing in environmental issues. She lives in Berlin.

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