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German plastic floods Southeast Asia

January 23, 2019

Just because the plastic lands in the recycling bin doesn't mean it will find a new life in another product. While some is recycled and some is burnt for energy, much of Germany's plastic trash lands in Southeast Asia.

A person picking over trash in Indonesia
Image: Getty Images/U. Ifansasti

"Something for the whole family" — a German breakfast spread slogan is still legible on a faded yellow plastic lid. Members of the environmental organization Greenpeace found the lid in a huge landfill in Malaysia, 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles) away from the German garbage can it was originally tossed into. The belief back then: don't worry, it'll be recycled.

Instead, it traveled from Germany to Malaysia. Has the German recycling system — and the many trash cans it involves — failed?

Read more: Plastic waste and its environmental impact

"It fails in the respect that it doesn't really recycle all plastic waste it collects," Manfred Santen, a chemist and an expert for plastic waste with Greenpeace, told DW.

Three trash bins in front of a house in Germany
Germany is known for its recycling system — but not everything that lands in the bin gets recycledImage: picture-alliance

While Germans are world champions of trash separation, not everything they toss into the yellow bin reserved for plastic packaging gets recycled. It is often incinerated. Statistics show that only 15 percent will actually be reused, Santen said.

'Utopian recycling rates'

Officially, the country's recycling rate is 36 percent. But critics say this number is far from the ugly truth. A new packaging law even states that by 2022, 63 percent of all plastic waste should be recycled. But Peter Kurth, director of the Association of German Disposal-, Water- and Resource-Economy (BDE), said he considers this number utopian.

Infographic showing packaging waste in Germany

"With every Zalando or Amazon package, cheap materials get tossed into German garbage bins," Kurth told DW. "But companies that produce synthetic materials only accept recycled plastics when they're at the same level as raw oil in terms of price and quality."

Read more: The tough task of tackling the plastic problem

Kurth agrees there are problems in the recycling cycle. But at the core of these problems, he says, isn't the German recycling system itself but the type of plastic used, or particularly the use of different synthetics in one product.

"When a single case of packaging consists of 20 to 30 different materials, recycling becomes expensive and the end products hard to sell," Kurth explained.

The rich, the poor and the trash

Southeast Asia, landfill of the West

What cannot be economically recycled usually finds its way to the incinerator, for example in plants in the chemical or cement industries, Kurth said, where burning plastic becomes a substitute fuel for oil and gas. But there is more plastic waste than all cement and chemical plants in Germany need. Kurth said what is not sold to customers in Germany is sold to Asia.

Just two years ago, the yellow spread lid would probably have landed in China. For years, the country was importing waste from Western countries and extracting raw materials from it. But in December 2017, Beijing set a strict contamination limit for plastic waste and since then has imported only high-quality plastic waste. This was tantamount to an import ban, even for German plastic waste.

A massive pile of plastic waste in Malaysia
Tons of German plastic are annually exported to Southeast AsiaImage: Reuters/L. Seng Sin

In 2017 more than 340,000 tons of plastic waste were being sent from Germany to China, but the BDE estimated that by 2018 the figure had dropped to only 16,000 tons — a decline of 95 percent. According to figures from the Federal Statistical Office, exports of German plastic waste to India, Malaysia and Indonesia skyrocketed in early 2018. 

Read more: Global waste to pile up by 70 percent in 2050

According to Greenpeace, from January to July 2018 around 754,000 tons of worldwide plastic waste landed in Malaysia. Of that plastic trash, the group said the United States produced 195,000 tons, followed by Japan, the UK and Germany, which was responsible for more than 72,000 tons.

Lung disease due to illegal waste incineration

Although legal imports of plastic waste are also sorted in Malaysia, in many cases even high-quality plastics end up in landfills, according to Greenpeace chemist Santen.

"There is no real waste management system in these countries," Santen said. "The landfills are usually unsecured, and during storms or heavy rainfall material enters the environment, and thus often the sea."

Garbage burning in Indonesia
Noxious fumes from burning plastic endanger people and the environmentImage: Getty Images/U. Ifansasti

According to Greenpeace, a considerable part of the plastic waste in Malaysia is also taken by unauthorized companies that store it in abandoned buildings and improvised landfills, have it floundered between shrimp and fish farms or illegally burn it outdoors. This often happens in the vicinity of residential areas, whose inhabitants not only complain of the noxious odors but also increasingly suffer from lung diseases.

Local waste disposal — necessary or impossible?

The situation in Southeast Asia drove Greenpeace to call on the German recycling industry to increase capacity so that everything that accumulates here can be processed here, too, Santen said. Beyond the environmental and health hazards caused by the plastics in Asia, it is not sustainable at all to ship plastic waste halfway around the world.

But BDE managing director Kurth said that while it "almost physically" hurts him to see German plastic in Asian landfills, an export ban won't work.

"We sell scrap, waste paper, waste glass and even plastic waste — do you want each country to only use their own recycling industry for all of this? Small countries don't even have recycling industries," he said.

To insist on national borders for secondary raw materials, while primary raw materials are bought all over the world as a matter of course, is a fundamental misunderstanding of recycling, Kurth added.

Read more: Six data visualizations that explain the plastic problem

Producers and politicians have a responsibility

Santen and Kurth did agree on a different issue: The packaging industry with its many disposable products needs to be rethought.

"Companies like Nestlé or Unilever are flooding Southeast Asia with so-called daily rations of their products, in single-use bags — well aware that there is no proper waste disposal," Santen said. "And then they are disposed of as garbage in the environment."   

While Greenpeace called a new German push for companies to use less plastic, Santen said the group doubts whether the voluntary initiative would really work.

And what about consumers? Individuals can choose with their pocketbooks, but when nearly all choices consist of packaging materials that get tossed after one use, "the consumer doesn't have much of a chance" at sustained change, Santen said.

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