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How to curb Germany's packaging waste

Kiyo Dörrer
December 6, 2016

You may think of Germany as a recycling mecca - but the country is the number-one producer of packaging waste, and a top per capita trash producer in Europe. And curbing that is trickier than it seems.

Bildergalerie Verpacktes Essen
Image: DW/A. Maciol

Germans are known for their avid separation of trash and diligent recycling. Indeed, the country is one of the recycling champions of the world, and reuses about half its waste.

But recent numbers from the environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) show that although Germany might be good at recycling, it is also very good at producing trash.

According to DUH, every German produces an average of 213 kilograms (469 pounds) of packaging waste per year - that's more than 600 grams or 1.3 pounds per day.

Compared to France with 185 kilograms, Austria with 150 kilograms and Sweden with 109 kilograms of packaging waste per capita per year, this makes Germany the number-one waster of packaging in Europe.

And the problem is mounting: packaging waste has grown by 13 percent over the last decade in Germany, reflecting a worldwide trend.

But while companies profit from more packaging, the government is struggling to curb rising amounts of waste through regulation.

Large pile of "yellow sacks" for plastics recycling on the roadside
Packaging waste in Germany has increased 13 percent over the last 10 yearsImage: picture alliance/dpa/P.Pleul

Profiting from packaging

For one thing, "there is a clear trend towards pre-portioning and smaller portioning, which produces enormous amounts of packaging," Thomas Fischer of the Deutsche Umwelthilfe told DW.

This portioning caters to the increasing number of single households, he explained. But companies are also doing this increase their margins or hide shrinking product sizes, he added.

A key example is the popular coffee capsule. Such pre-packaged portions use 16 times more packaging than conventionally packaged coffee grounds, but earn the company up to four times more margin.

On top of that, market factors have eroded the German system for reusing beverage bottles. What used to represent a model of German environmentalism is now being increasingly abandoned as companies favor single-use bottles, which are cheaper and don't take up costly storage space.  

Around 25 years ago after the deposit system had been put into place, more than 90 percent of water was sold in reusable bottles - now, that's less than 30 percent. Discounter supermarket chains Aldi and Lidl have even stopped using reusable plastic bottles with a deposit altogether.

Woman returning plastic bottle at deposit machine in German supermarket
Use of reusable bottles is rapidly declining in Germany as companies prefer cheaper single-use bottlesImage: picture-alliance/Rainer Hackenberg

Companies take baby steps

According to a study by the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, companies could easily and immediately reduce the resources used for packaging by 20 percent if they could redesign their packaging to be more efficient and eco-friendly.

Some examples of this have appeared on the market recently. Compressed spray deodorants that contain the same amount of product but 20 percent less packaging, as well as detergents in compressed packaging can now be spotted in drugstores. Lidl reduced its packaging of toilet paper by 20 percent by simply rolling the toilet paper tighter.

Another voluntary action taken by companies to reduce waste is the banning of plastic bags. Starting from the first of June, Rewe - the country's second largest supermarket chain - banned plastic bags from its stores. The chain calculated that through this, 140 million less plastic bags will be used.

Though less drastic, 240 German chains have also committed to charging money for use of plastic bags, beginning in July 2016.

Used coffee capsules
Coffee capsules produce 16 times more waste than regularly packaged coffeeImage: picture alliance/dpa/L.Sojka

But the paper bags that Rewe and other supermarkets and drugstores still offer are not significantly better, and can at times be even worse for the environment - since their production uses significant resources.

Is political intervention necessary?

These voluntary actions from the business side are a positive step, especially in raising consumer awareness - but it's not nearly enough to change the bigger picture, says Fischer. In his opinion, "also the government that has to take the most action."

Currently, the law governing packaging emphasizes recycling, and not reducing the amount of packaging that flows into the waste stream.

The German government has identified the need for a new law, but has been struggling over the past four years to pass new regulations. A renewed proposal is expected in the cabinet by the end of this year.  

"Through the new proposal, we are going to introduce a system supporting companies that produce better recyclable and eco-friendly packaging," Stephan Gabriel Haufe of the German Environment Ministry told DW.

The new framework is also supposed to sanction companies that produce packaging out of several plastics, or notoriously hard-to-recycle black plastics.

Retailers are additionally supposed to clearly mark which plastic bottles are reused, and which are not - thus handing the eco-baton back to the consumer. 

But all this doesn't change the fact that two of the biggest discounters - Aldi and Lidl - don't even give the consumer a choice in the first place.

"Whether [the law] will pass - and if it does, how soon it will be implemented - is yet to be seen," Haufe concluded.