Whilst no country in the world has a perfect recycling system, Germany is one of the more impressive case studies. Back in the 1970s there were around 50,000 landfills in Germany; now there are fewer than 200..
Germany has one of the largest waste management economies in the world with an annual turnover of €70 billion (about $115 billion AUD). To put that into perspective, that is about the same size as Luxembourg’s GDP.
Germanys waste economy consists of 11,000 waste management companies that operate 15,500 facilities such as collection and recycling centres and currently employs over 270 000 individuals.
Despite the fact legally Germans are not obliged to ‘sort’ their household waste, the vast majority still do, jokingly referring to this as a bobby. According to the German Federal Statistical Office, between 1996 and 2007 the nation reduced its total net waste amount by more than 37.7 million US tonnes.
It’s the manufacturer’s responsibility
A unique feature of Germany’s recycling system is that goods manufacturers and distributors themselves have a responsibility of waste disposal and are obliged to take back used packages. This includes both primary and secondary packaging.
For example, the manufacturer of a soda can is responsible for the recycling of not just the can – the primary packaging – but also the packaging it came in such as the carton -the secondary packaging. This ruling originated back in 1991 as “packaging ordinance.”
Manufacturers bear the cost of disposing of goods that aren’t recyclable – this includes costs of building landfills, treating trash and the general costs associated with the facilitation of disposing of waste safely.
In 1996 the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act was introduced which primarily targets producers to focus on waste avoidance, waste recovery and environmentally compatible disposal. This encourages businesses to avoid producing significant waste in the first place but also recycle the waste they produce and to dispose of non-recyclable material in an environmentally safe way. This is described as a ‘polluter pays’ principle unlike the ‘consumer pays’ model that is used in most countries, such as here in Australia where waste management is typically funded by taxpaying citizens through council rates.
Subsequently, there are separate bins for paper, recyclable materials, organic waste and other waste, which includes old cloths and shoes.
As a result of this, Germany currently has an overall recycling rate of 66%
The Green Dot and Duales System
Germany started the “green dot’ system which is now being utilised in 20 European Union countries. Most households in Germany are provided with a either a yellow bin or bag for plastic packaging. This particular scheme however is not a part of the municipal waste management system but is instead financed privately and part of the Duales System.
Starting in the early 1990s, manufacturers pay a license fee to the DSD (Duales System) and are then given permission to feature the green dot on their packaging. The fees pay for private companies to collect and recycle this packaging in a safe and effective way. However, this system isn’t perfect and there is a push for it to be overhauled, such as increasing the recycling quotas.
For example, The EU has several recycling targets in place by 2030 which includes 60% of packaging made out of plastic by 2025, but only 40% of the plastic waste under this system actually gets recycled due to contamination with other types of household waste or as a result of confusion among different types of plastics such as bioplastics.
One of the more successful components of the waste system is the brown bins which Germany was very proactive in establishing. These bins collect all organic and food scraps including gardening waste. This system has been adopted by many globally including here in Australia where local councils have this organic bin as a third bin alongside the traditional recycling and landfill bins.
In summary, Germany is a great example of a highly effective and efficient waste management program. Yes, it isn’t perfect, however, the system is one of the closest examples the world has to a circular economy.