By Marie Look on Jul 13, 2009

Trash Planet: Germany

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The Trash Planet series highlights various countries around the world and how they handle their waste.

Germany leads the European nations in recycling, with around 70 percent of the waste the country generates successfully recovered and reused each year. To put that figure into perspective, consider this: In 2007, the U.S. was able to recover only about 33 percent of the waste generated that year.

To operate such a successful waste management system nationwide is certainly no small feat, but for the past several years the Germans have made it look easy. So how do they do it?

“Recycling is very important in Germany,” says Günseli Aksoy, a 24-year-old mechanical engineering student at the Braunschweig University of Technology. “The people here are very conscientious.”

Photo: Faa.gov

Germany's recycling rate is one of the highest in the world - an respectable 70 percent. Photo: Faa.gov

And while the country’s conscientious waste management strategy requires cooperation from the government, the industry and the citizens, it starts at the very beginning of the waste creation process – with the product manufacturers.

There are three simple components the manufacturers must consider: waste avoidance, waste recovery and environmentally compatible disposal.

By incorporating waste avoidance into industry, much of Germany’s waste management becomes “invisible,” as corporations are forced to re-think every aspect of manufacturing. Packaging, processes and disposal of items are all engineered with recycling and elimination of waste in mind.

Federal Waste Management Policy

In 1996, German lawmakers who were concerned about the country’s growing number of landfills passed the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act, which requires businesses to eliminate waste production by implementing one or more of the three management strategies.

Waste avoidance is first priority because it encourages companies to design their manufacturing processes and packaging with elimination of wastefulness in mind. Second, waste that can’t be avoided must be recycled or converted into energy. Lastly, waste that can’t be recovered must be disposed of in a way that is environmentally safe.

The concept in which private industries are responsible for eliminating waste – and for covering the costs – is described as the “polluter pays” principle. In other words, those who create the waste are responsible for cleaning up the mess. The U.S. has a “consumer pays” policy, in which waste management is funded by taxpaying citizens.

Germany’s three-point strategy doesn’t apply to just the country’s solid and packaging wastes, but also to liquid, gaseous, hazardous, radioactive and medical wastes. The efforts have been hugely successful; according to the German Federal Statistical Office, between the years 1996 and 2007, the country has reduced its total net waste amount by more than 37.7 million U.S. tons.

Packaging Ordinance

Even before Germany’s Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act formed the country’s national waste management policy, legislators knew they needed to make big changes. Something had to be done to reduce the amount of solid waste the country was generating each year.

In 1991, Germany adopted its Packaging Ordinance, which requires all manufacturers to collect and then recycle or reuse their packaging after it is disposed of by consumers.

Making corporations responsible for their packaging to the end of its life cycle encourages them to package goods with fewer materials in order to minimize recycling and disposal costs.

The Ordinance focuses on improving three categories of packaging:

  • Transport packaging (crates and shipping boxes)
  • Secondary packaging (non-essential boxes, such as around bottles of vitamins)
  • Primary packaging (casings that come in contact with the product, such as toothpaste tubes)
    Photo: Lotex24.de

    The Green Dot trademark ensures the responsibility of manufacturers' recycling and waste reduction practices. Photo: Lotex24.de

The Dual System and The Green Dot Trademark

Many companies had a difficult time complying with all the new standards and recycling laws introduced by the Packaging Ordinance.

They decided that they needed to better organize themselves, and so the non-profit organization Duales System Deutschland GmbH (Dual System Germany, or DSD) was created.

Manufacturers pay a fee to become a member of the DSD and are then permitted to print Der Grüne Punkt (the Green Dot) trademark on all their packaging.

Fees are decided based on the material, the weight and the number of items. The DSD also takes into consideration what it will cost to collect, sort, treat and recycle the different materials.

Recycling companies guarantee to accept any and all materials displaying the Green Dot, because the trademark is a symbol that the product’s manufacturer has paid to become a DSD member and promises to comply with Germany’s recycling laws.

Currently, the Green Dot system is used by more than 130,000 companies in 25 European countries (20 EU members and four candidate countries – Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, as well as Norway). PRO Europe, the umbrella organization for European packaging waste management systems, reports that 3.2 million tons (U.S. tons) of Germany’s commercial packaging waste was recovered in 2007. That’s more than 88 percent of all the packaging produced in Germany that year!

But wait, there’s more. DSD reports that the country’s recycling efforts in 2008 not only kept waste out of landfills, but it also avoided an estimated 1.4 million tons of CO2 emissions.

According to a municipal solid waste report by the EPA, in 2007, the U.S. was able to recover only about 43 percent of all the containers and packaging produced that year.

Citizen Responsibility

DSD has made recycling widely available and very convenient for German citizens. Trash bins can be found on street corners, in public parks and other spaces, in the courtyards of apartment buildings, and in all single family homes. These trash containers are usually color-coded and labeled according to what should be placed in them:

Photo: Makingthishome.com

Germany distributes bins of different colors for every material. While Germans have to separate their recycling, the system is still very successful. Photo: Makingthishome.com

  • Yellow bin – packaging
  • Blue bin – paper and cardboard
  • White bin – white or clear glass
  • Brown bin – brown glass
  • Green bin – green glass
  • “Bio” bin – leftover food and plant waste

A neighborhood will also likely have receptacles for collecting discarded shoes, clothing items and scrap metal. There are also black bins for any rubbish that doesn’t fit into one of the other categories.

Legally, Germans are not obliged to sort their household waste, but clearly the vast majority of them don’t mind doing it. In fact, many citizens feel so strongly about sorting their trash that they will often help or politely correct foreigners or any others they see who are “doing it wrong.”

“[Recycling] becomes a way of life here, and if people in the [United States] just started doing it, after a while it becomes routine and you don’t even realize you’re doing it,” says Kormany Hochnedel, a 23-year-old American living in Germany. “It’s the same as simply throwing something away. It’s such a simple thing that makes such a huge difference.”

“Special rubbish,” paint and other chemicals, can be taken to local recycling centers. Or sometimes, stores that sell those products will have trash bins outside their doors. For example, an electronics store will have a bin for discarded batteries.

Germans know that when they shop at grocers and many other stores, they are expected to bring their own reusable shopping bag. Some stores do have plastic bags, but they must be purchased by the consumer.

“Nobody even considers using plastic bags when going to the store [in Germany],” says Hochnedel. “You bring your own, or you carry your stuff out in a cart or in your arms. You really see what a difference little things like that can make – there is never garbage on the streets. It’s so clean.”

Also, people can return certain bottles and other containers to the grocery or liquor store where they were purchased. For doing this, customers receive either a discount off their next purchase, or they get back a small deposit, usually around 15 cents per bottle. This provides citizens with a small monetary incentive to recycle, and it also helps companies meet their recycling quotas.

“It doesn’t matter whether [the bottles] are made from plastic or from glass – a person has to pay a deposit, so at the end he’s going to give the bottles back,” Aksoy says.

Photo: Destination360.com

Germany is working on becoming a zero-waste country by 2020. Photo: Destination360.com

Post-Collection Process

So, after all the careful sorting, where does the trash go? The DSD has a plan for that part of waste management, too.

The DSD works with cities and towns to coordinate collection sites and systems around the country. Many local governments hire private contractors to handle their waste management, but these operations are still funded by the Green Dot fees paid by industry members.

After the trash is collected, what it is determines which path it takes. Most items will be transferred directly to a sorting plant, where the recyclable parts are separated from the non-recyclable parts. Materials that go to sorting plants include paper and cardboard, packaging, textiles and shoes, bulky waste, hazardous waste, scrap metal, electronics and batteries.

From a sorting plant, material can travel in many different directions. Paper goes to a paper mill, glass goes to a processing plant and then to a glassworks facility, and clothing goes to second-hand distributors. The majority of items materials will go to either a recycling facility, treatment facility, or both.

Anything that can’t be recycled is responsibly incinerated or undergoes mechanical-biological treatment before being put into a landfill. In the 1970s, Germany had around 50,000 landfills, but now there are fewer than 200, thanks to stricter regulations and a diminished need.

According to the European Environment Agency, in 2006, Germany landfilled only about one percent of the country’s untreated waste. In 2007, the EPA reports that the U.S.  sent 54 percent of its waste to more than 1,700 landfills.

Future Progress

Germany certainly has no plans to fall out of the No. 1 position in the recycling race. With its recycling rate already around 70 percent, the nation is ready to conquer the final frontier in sustainability.

By the year 2020, Germany hopes to find a way to reuse every last scrap of every item produced. Achieving this zero waste goal would make the country 100 percent sustainable and eliminate the need for landfills completely.

It’s no question that Germany has some serious work to do in order to meet its goal, but with the excellent ability to organize its industry members and citizens, as well as engineer highly innovative and efficient manufacturing and recycling processes, the nation continues to prove itself as one of the most forward-thinking and environmentally conscious countries in the world.

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Comments

  1. Jim Armstrong says

    Great article. I didn’t know this about Germany, but it’s high time that we (US) follow their example. but I don’t even want to find out how badly our politicans could foul up a program like this.

  2. Monika says

    In 2006 we traveled to Germany and Austria for 1 month. The citizens are so conscientious about their country. their planet, they wouldn’t even consider throwing garbage on the streets. Unfortunately we have too many choices in America and everything is big, bigger, biggest/ME ME ME. Maybe our economic difficulties will change some of our attitudes and help make us more responsible. I suppose I’m dreaming, but it’s something I pray every day for.

  3. Sara says

    I was once walking through a park in Germany and watched this conversation go down:

    Woman 1 litters, throwing a tissue on the ground.

    Woman 2: Throw that away!

    Woman 1: But it’s biodegradible.

    Woman 2: Not with such fat boogers!

  4. Triskelion says

    Ive been reading earth911 for over 2 years now. This is the most amazing article ive ever seen! This had been my thinking all along since i noticed that USA keeps leaving it only up to the individual to recycle yet minimal is done by the government and major companies to assist or take steps before the final product comes to the user especially when it comes to packaging computer and other hardware items..all that styrofoam and other stuff that just gets discarded in the landfill.

    Jim youre right about politicians screwing it up. And monika youre right about me me me attitudes. i wonder if its all about ME ME ME and money money money if germany just happens to have the money or they were smart enough to just find ways of making money tod o all this. I wished the USA would review their documentation and see how they worked it out. I think its amazing.

    To Marie Look:
    I dont know how you researched all of this but I give you hundreds of kudos for this. This should really be an example for us all.
    thanks again

  5. Ron Goldenberg says

    Great reporting Marie!

    I got a pang of guilt and envy while reading the article. Although recycling here in the Montreal area is catching on it is not near the levels that you describe in Germany. Good on them.
    Did you happen to discover what they are doing with mattresses? Are they being recycled or incinerated?

  6. says

    Great article, indeed! As a German living in the US, I’m very proud most Germans. YES! they don’t generate much garbage. It’s based on doing what’s right for the greater good, not just for one individual. The idea of doing anything for the greater good, is foreign in this country. It works in most European countries.
    Recycling (sort in colored bags) is free and everyone’s responsibility. Creating garbage ( black bags!) is very expensive. Sorting your garbage is a responsibility, not just something green for tree huggers to do.

    Now, as the Executive Director of Recycle Utah (a 501 C3 non-profit) in Park City, UT, I can tell you – it can be done in the US as well. We’re accepting more than 40 different items, finding a way to get them recycled and we have “the best darn little recycling center in the west.” I’ve spend the last decade in Park City talking to each and every student in each school in this country. They get the message. They take it home. They are our future. Go for it America! YES! we can do it here.

    Park City is a healthy place to visit. Come on by and check us out!

  7. Grace Bottitta-Williamson says

    Great article! I currently live in Germany – they make it sooooo easy to recycle and compost. Compost bins are right outside your door and picked up once a week. Our apt bldg’s is always full, so is our bldg’s paper recycling bin. I can’t understand why it isn’t this easy in the US. I think some of it is our ( I am an American) self-centered point of view – we want things fast and easy, but I also think we have more land for landfills so they aren’t always in people’s neighborhoods. Here in Germany they use their land space very efficiently – including many trails for walking and bikes. When I lived in the US their have been stores that insisted that I take a plastic bag – I left my item on the counter w/out purchase. The US needs a major attitude shift – what a waste of resources!

  8. JoAnn Yukimura says

    Thank you for a very informative and inspiring article. My question is how much of the trash that does occur is burned or incinerated? What percentage is recycled vs. burned in Germany?

  9. Jan says

    I am German and lived in Seattle for a while. I didn’t know what to do with old batteries, so I went to a store that sold batteries and asked for a recycling bin for batteries the way I would do here in Germany. I was very suprised when the lady told me to throw them into the “normal” trash like all the other stuff. Having no other alternative I did just that but felt bad for several days. Talking about conscientiousness! :-)

  10. IamIan says

    Source Articles ( thanks for providing links ) … they are not defining ‘waste’ the same way.

    EU reference is for packaging only … U.S. reference is for Municipal Solid Waste only.

    Nice article , but I think it should have been mentioned that the two sources are not using the term ‘waste’ the same way.

  11. says

    70% recycling- level for germany is not true. The link leads to a colum diagram which only shows packaging- waste.
    Germany has a powerfull lobby against better recycling. Incineration is the enemy of recycling, because its needs somethimhg for the fire.
    And it is a big business for elctric power companies to produce the electricity for the synthezis of all sunstances, which are burned.
    The concept of kryo- recycling is ignored since more than a decade: http://sites.google.com/site/kryorecycling
    Some people say, that incinerastion is energy- recycling, but that is not true. Recycling is the true energy- recycling, becuase it saves the energy, which was used to create a material.

  12. Jonathan says

    If you take a moment to compare the data sets you will realize the 70% applies only to Germany’s packaging waste, not all waste as the author implies. I was unable to find a definition of “packaging waste” in Germany’s data. It is safe to say “packaging waste” does not include food scraps and yard waste which comprise 25.3% of all U.S. waste. While everyone agrees it is in our best interest to maximize the efficiency of recycling streams, there are thousands of rural situations within the U.S. where processing and transportation of recyclables would use more embodied energy than it conserves.

  13. Renaldo says

    Actually, the “packaging waste” issue that a couple of commenters mention is not that relevant here: the 70% figure is a pretty accurate reflection of German recycling and waste efficiency. If everything is included–like how Germans recycle automobiles–it is probably higher, with an even wider discrepancy compared with the US. Having lived in Germany for a decade there’s no question that Germans have an incomparably higher “Community Intelligence Quotient” than in the US, and a much greater awareness of the planet as a fragile ecosystem with limited resources.

    Since the rise of Reaganism and the destructive effects of conservative values in the US, there has been a progressive erosion of community, infrastructure, planning, and the “common-wealth”. Socially conscious Americans are as much to blame as the conservatives themselves for not fighting this rise in American fascism. Indeed, America has much more to learn from Germany than just recycling.

  14. Nancy J. says

    Undoubtably, Germany is a leader in waste diversion, but this article is misleading. It is unnecessary to restate what has already been said, instead I shall provide additional information: http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,467239,00.html

    Incineration is not completely ‘the enemy’ as was stated before, but the last step of a set of processes by which waste resources are maximized until they have no other use than for energetic purposes. ‘The greatest enemy’ remains to be what practices the United States does at this juncture: all the environmental impacts of various transformation technologies of waste (those include incineration, pyrolysis, distillation, or biological conversion other than composting, gasification, or biomass conversion), landfilling reaped the worst of all environmental practices.

    The message is clear, waste management practices in the U.S. need to improve. Germany can serve as a model, but even Germany’s system is not near perfection.

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