The high cost of raw materials is encouraging Germans to recycle even more than they already do. They're saving money, not to mention the environment, and other countries are looking to follow in their footsteps.
There's better things to do with an old cell phone than just throw it away
One hundred days after the introduction of a new recycling system for electronic waste in Germany, the industry has deemed it a positive step. 24,000 containers of used washing machines, refrigerators, televisions, computers and mobile phones have been salvaged from around the country and processed for reuse.
Recycling takes a front seat in Germany -- not only because of the environment, but also for a handful of economic reasons. With raw material prices increasing steadily, trash is becoming a commodity.
Separati n g trash n o lo n ger seems ridiculous
"We were often laughed at in Germany for all the different trash cans we had in the kitchen, for the typical German discipline we had in separating our trash," said Stephan Harmening from Federation of the German Waste Management Industry, referring to the German practice of returning bottles to the supermarket and washing out yogurt containers before tossing them in a separate bin.
A refund on bottles and cans encourages Germans to return them for recycling
"But that's changed now," he added. "Everywhere in the world -- and I just got back from a conference in China on this topic -- people are thinking about how to make raw material out of what's in the trash can. We serve as an example in many countries, like in China, for example."
Mo n ey saved is mo n ey ear n ed
That mainly has to do with mounting prices for raw materials, which makes recycling scrap metal, glass, paper and plastic more and more profitable. Michael Huether, director of the Institute for the German Economy in Cologne, said that recycling positively affects the economy as a whole by allowing the country to avoid spending on imports.
"At the present, we can identify an economic added-value effect of 3.7 billion euros ($4.7 billion) from avoided import expenses," he said. "In addition, there is a direct employment increase of 60,000 persons in the sector."
A whopping 2.2 billion euros from that total amount are saved from the energy it would have cost to produce new material. The greatest savings effect is enjoyed in the steel industry -- currently 2.3 billion euros a year. The aluminum industry follows with 700 million euros in annual savings attributed to recycling.
A n upward tre n d
Four-part public trash cans -- for paper, packaging, glass and everything else -- are common in Germany
"Today, 65 percent of accumulated waste in Germany is either recycled or used as an alternative energy source," Harmering said. "One could say that the potential is there for an additional 35 percent. Nevertheless, Germany is Europe's leader in recycling. German waste managers have an annual turnover of 19 billion euros and employ 160,000 people."
The waste management expert also said he thinks recycling quotas will continue to rise. Steel scrap, for example, currently has a quota of 44 percent, though it's already at 70 percent in the US. Steel, aluminum and copper are in such high demand worldwide that Russia had already put a tariff of 15 percent on exported steel scrap -- and 50 percent on aluminum and copper.
More and more often, electronic waste workers are finding appliances in the containers without electric cables. Those copper wires inside the cables are as valuable as gold: A container currently brings in 30,000 euros on the global market.