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Tackling trash

April 23, 2012

Germany is one of the European Union's top recyclers, sending nearly no garbage to landfill, according to a recent report. Friends of the Earth questions the numbers, though.

Image: th-photo-Fotolia.com

The European Union's executive has identified Germany among Europe's most exemplary recyclers and wants other European countries to copy its policies.

According to a recent report on European waste management, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands have nearly eliminated waste from garbage tips thanks to a combination of restrictions and fees.

"Six Member States now combine virtually zero landfilling and high recycling rates," said EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik in a statement.

"Not only do they exploit the value of the waste, they have created thriving industries and many jobs in the process."

Disparities between countries

Garbage bins for different kids of waste
Germany recycles 45 percent of its municipal wasteImage: Fotolia/TrudiDesign

Less than 3 percent of municipal waste in these countries is buried, compared to around 100 percent in some eastern European countries, like Bulgaria. The European average is for countries to send 38 percent of their garbage to landfill.

According to data gathered by the EU's statistical office, Eurostat, Germany recycled nearly half of its municipal waste in 2010, around double the EU average of 25 percent.

The EU Commission reports that in Germany 583 kilograms of waste is produced per person annually.

This is higher than the European average of 502 kilograms, but less than Cyprus, the country with the greatest garbage per person with 760 kilograms per annum.

Of Germany's municipal waste, 45 percent is recycled, 38 percent is burned and 17 percent is composted.

The country leading the field in composting is Austria, where 40 percent of all waste is turned into soil and fertilizer.

According to Eurostat, two million people across the EU work in waste management.

In 2008, the industry generated a turnover of 145 billion euros ($190 billion). The Commission says this figure could be even higher, with the right measures.

If EU waste management regulations were fully implemented, 400,000 jobs would be created, generating additional turnover of 42 billion euros, it said.

The Commission said economic incentives had proved crucial for changing recycling rates in the most successful countries.

Some of the best tools included bans or penalties for landfill, and incineration; "Pay-as-you-throw" schemes that give households an economic incentive to reduce their waste; and rules that extend producers' responsibility for wares once they leave the shelf.

Potocnik said it was Europe's duty to spread such policies throughout the bloc.

'Misleading' statistics

A waste incineration plant in Cologne
Not all waste destined for incineration can be burnedImage: AP

Claudia Baitinger from BUND, the German chapter of Friends of the Earth, said the statistics hide some important facts.

Burning garbage remains a large waste of resources, even where it is used to generate power and heat for homes. "Resources are being squandered here," she said, pointing out that the resources that are turned to fuel required energy to create in the first place.

"The hierarchy of waste management is still upside down," said Baitinger. "Appeals are based on this order: prevention, reuse, recycling and at the very end disposal. In reality, it happens the other way around."

She doubts the extent to which Germany is saving waste from landfill.

"Many incineration plants have a two-to-one ratio of input versus rejected fuel," she said, explaining that for every two metric tons of waste brought to the plant, one remains unprocessed, requiring special disposal.

The statistics also suggest disposable plastic bottles remain a popular form of packaging, while eco-friendly packaging is on the decline.

Baitinger added that it was unfair to compare all EU countries by the same measures, as some states like Bulgaria and Romania are too poor to invest more money in environmental protection.

She also thinks the EU is taking aim at the wrong target.

"Municipal waste is nothing compared to industrial waste," she said.

Author: Günther Birkenstock / ew
Editor: Nathan Witkop