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Battle of the Green Dot

Günther Birkenstock / lbhJuly 15, 2013

For more than 20 years, Germany's famous Green Dot system has been a leading light for recycling worldwide. Now, instead of letting private companies run it exclusively, local utility companies want to get involved.

A picture shows packaging being sorted by machinery. (Photo credit: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images

Germany's Green Dot recycling program is under attack, again. The system, which dates back to the first German packaging regulations of 1991, has been controversial over the last two decades for a variety of reasons, mainly on issues of cost and efficiency.

Now, the Association of Local Utilities (VKU), is hoping to abolish Germany's current system of waste separation, collection and recycling completely. The VKU represents the interests of the local public utility sector in Germany, and they say their constituents should now take waste management matters into their own hands.

Der Grüne Punkt, as it is known in German, was a system thought up by Klaus Töpfer, Germany's environment minister in the early 1990s. It makes producers and suppliers take back used packaging and was introduced to conquer the growing mountains of waste and recover valuable recyclables, instead of burying them into the earth.

Deutschland Umwelt Der Grüne Punkt Logo auf Abfalltonne
The Green Dot system has been used for trash recycling in Germany for over 20 yearsImage: Imago

Since the introduction of the system, it is often jokingly said, Germans have developed a new nationwide hobby: trash separation.

A long term monopoly

Shortly before the packaging regulation came into effect in 1991, the retail and consumer goods industry established a new organization, called Dual System Germany (DSD). DSD introduced the Green Dot label, now found on cans, yoghurt cups and milk cartons and other types of food packaging. Manufacturers and distributors must pay a licensing fee in order to print the eco-label on their products.

"With the introduction of the packaging regulation, the DSD served a clearing-house function of accepting license fees and issuing licenses,” said Patrick Hasenkamp, from the Association of Local Utilities, VKU. But then, he says, the DSD put its own financial interests first turning a high profit.

As a result, Hasenkamp says the quality of recycling has faltered, while the cost of recycling has risen. As part of his new vision, he wants a central point of operation, to eliminate privatization of waste management. He also says new rules should be implemented to call for higher recycling quotas.

Portrait of Patrick Hasenkamp, Vice president of the Association of Local Utilities in Germany. Photo: Abfallwirtschaftsbetriebe Münster (AWM)
Patrick Hasenkamp says that waste management needs to be de-privatizedImage: DSD

In addition, Hasenkamp says, garbage disposal and separation should be regulated differently, because materials such as glass, paper and metal already carry value, and therefore should not be disposed of through a product return system.

Competition and efficiency

DSD spokesperson Norbert Völl says the criticism is unwarranted and defends his company making a profit. Moreover, he argues the costs for citizens has fallen steadily over the years. He looks to France, where waste is managed by municipalities.

"In France, less packaging waste is collected, but the costs are just as high, sometimes higher than Germany, because there is no control of efficiency and effectiveness there," Völl said, adding that he fears the same if waste management in Germany is handed over to municipalities.

26 European countries have now introduced the Green Dot system, but the local projects have no economic links back to the DSD. The United Kingdom and Italy have decided to not use the system. "There, it is decided at local government area what and how much needs to be recycled," says Völl. The result is very low recycling rates, barely in line with the EU targets.

Norbert Völl, spokesperson for Dual System Germany Photo: Duales System Deutschland (DSD)
Norbert Völl believes Germany's waste management system is a model for the EUImage: AWM

Many industry experts now say that machines can sort recyclable materials more efficiently than humans can by hand. If that's the case, just one question remains in Germany: Will it be local authorities or private companies looking after the recycling plants of the future?