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Germany

Getting Rid of All That Junk

Germans who live in the vicinity of a recycling container have sensed it all along -- Germany is world champion in the science of waste recycling. But how successful is the country really in reducing trash?

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How successful are Germans at reducing waste?

At a time when the economy is in a slump and the country's soccer team just missed claiming the World Cup title, it might be a soothing piece of news for Germans to know that they still have a number one hit: their recycling system, "Duales System Deutschland AG" (dual system).

Since its introduction in 1991, more than 15 countries have adopted Germany's recycling system, and every year more are looking at establishing similar structures in their own countries. But how successful is the system at reducing waste?

Mandatory recycling

It all started about 11 years ago when Germany introduced a new environmental regulation that required manufacturers to take back their packaging materials for recycling. But because not all manufacturers in Germany could afford to reclaim used packaging and recycle it, a new company called the "Duales System" was established for handling the entire process for all Germany’s manufacturers.

Since 1991, all products sold in Germany that contain reusable plastic or metal materials have to be marked with a so-called "Grüne Punkt" (green dot). The green marking is proof that the product’s manufacturers have paid a license fee to the Duales System to take over the recycling of their company’s products. The Duales System manages the recycling of all product packaging from paper to plastic, and aluminum to glass.

The price system for the green dot license is designed in such a way that it gives manufacturers an extra incentive to reduce packaging waste. The lighter the packaging, the less the producer pays for the recycling fee, thereby making the product cheaper for the consumer and thus more competitive on the market. Ideally, the Duales System encourages companies to design better recyclable packaging which in turn leads to a reduction in overall packaging waste.

Extending the life of a yogurt container

In practice the Duales System means that once a consumer has finished eating a yogurt, the container goes into a special recycling bin, where the plastic wrapping from toilet paper, cola cans and other reusable material is collected. From the consumer’s home the empty yogurt container is then brought to a recycling facility where the different packaging materials are sorted.

Special mechanized strainers separate the big packaging parts from the small. Magnets pull out tins and cans, lasers differentiate between paper and synthetic coated packaging, and concentrated bursts of wind blow plastic containers from the conveyer belt. The plastic containers, such as from a yogurt, are collected and melted down for reuse.

The science of sorting trash

Over the past decade, Germans have grown accustomed to the system of having more than one garbage can in their kitchen and at least three big color-coded bins in front of their house. Everyone from child to adult knows the meaning of the different bins: blue is for paper, brown for organic waste, and yellow for all packaging products with a green dot. Extra large bins at community points are also set up for collecting different types of glass.

While some Germans almost make a science out of sorting their trash, others are quite careless, says garbage man Volker from Krefeld. This is especially true in some "disadvantaged neighborhoods," he says, "where you realize that people don't care quite as much about recycling. They throw in all sorts of stuff that doesn't belong in there. One day, I even found the motor of a motorcycle in the yellow recycling bin."

Controversial issue

Regardless of how many people have gotten used to the system of the green dot, and no matter how many other countries have copied the German recycling system, the "Duales System" continues to spark a debate in Germany. One charge often raised against the system is that after all the sorting, at the end of the day, most of the collected material is just burned anyway.

But Achim Struchholz, spokesman of the "Duales System Deutschland AG" insists that all the valuable materials are being recycled. "It wouldn't make sense to burn it, neither from an economical nor from an environmental point of view," he says. "What does happen, though, is that people just throw organic waste into the bins that are intended for recycling. And those things we cannot recycle, so, yes, we have to burn them or bring them to the dump site."

Doese the system reduce waste?

The Duales System Deutschland AG maintains that since introducing the green dot in 1991 it has managed to reduce waste from wrapping materials by 14 percent, from 95 kilograms (209 pounds) per capita in 1991 to 82 kilograms (180 pounds) in 1999. This is considerably better than Germany’s neighbors in the Netherlands, who during the same time period increased their packaging waste by 20 percent.

Throughout Europe, Germany has one of the lowest levels of packaging waste, a surprising fact considering Germany is a highly industrialized country.

But while independent studies support the success of the Duales System, environmentalists have other objections. For Eva Leonhardt from the German environmental organization BUND, the Duales System only addresses part of the waste problem.

"In the beginning, the license fees provided an incentive for producers to look for lighter packaging alternatives, because they wanted their products to be cheaper and thus more competitive in the market," Leonhard says. The result was actually a reduction in packaging waste.

"But we have now come to the point where the total amount of waste in Germany is growing again. And that's because everyone is just sorting their trash and no one is really trying to reduce waste anymore." Too many consumers simply leave the task of waste reduction to the companies to deal with, she says.

Higher trash piles

Quite ironically, the Duales System actually fosters a line of thinking it caricatured in a TV-spot at the outset of its work in the early 1990s. It showed a family carelessly throwing away its garbage so that it piled up waist-high around the house. A voice in the background warned, "We are drowning in waste. Build higher houses!"

The question now is how the Duales System will manage to continue reducing the height of Germany’s growing trash piles so that it doesn’t have to build higher houses or bigger landfills. Only a reduction in the amount or products consumed and waste produced is an indicator of whether or not Germany truly is number one in recycling.

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