German city going to court to fight composting

A handful of rich compost
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The strange story of a fight against composting laws, by a community that loves composting.

It may be a case study for how laws can run amok, but it is also an anecdote demonstrating once again that Germans take their environment seriously.

The German Circular Economy Act (Kreislaufwirtschaftsgesetz) requires that local (district and independent city) governments must set up systems to ensure that compostable wastes, especially kitchen scraps and garden trimmings, are collected separately and sent to be processed for use as fertilizer and/or for generation of fuel gases from the decomposition of the materials.

The usual system for compliance consists of the bio-bin - one more color-coded waste bin to add to the assortment of yellow (plastic), orange (miscellaneous recyclables), blue (paper), and black bins. Bio-bins are colored brown. The compostable waste can then be separated from the black bins intended for everything else that doesn't have to be brought to a special, e.g. hazardous, waste collection point.

These bins are usually cost-free, but the pick-ups are subject to a charge based on the size of the bin. Anticipating that some cities would not want to multiply these costs to all their citizens, the law allows other methods by which the obligation to have a compostable waste collection program can be met. For example, the city can set up bins in neighborhoods, so that people can carry their collected compostables to the nearest collection point. Of course, this can make it harder to demonstrate that the collection of separated wastes is meeting the target percentages.

But District Administrator Erwin Schneider (of the CSU, the Bavarian arm of Merkel's party) has drawn a line in the sand: the district of Altötting will not introduce a bio bin, and cannot accept the half-hearted central collection point system either. After years of back-and-forth has failed to reach a compromise, the fight came to a head: the Upper Bavarian government issued a notice requiring compliance with the obligations of the Circular Economy Act. The administration of Altötting still refused to comply, and took the matter to the courts.

The argument put forward by Erwin Schneider is that expert studies show that composting of organic wastes in the Altötting district already exceeds 85%. There is only a small amount of kitchen wastes remaining in the general waste bin, and this also goes to an energy recovery plant.

But the decision to take this in front of the courts could have a lot of consequences. The courts might find that the neighborhood collection systems being set up as a cheaper solution do not comply with the requirements. As might be expected, studies show that the separation of wastes is not very successful when citizens have to haul their organic waste down the street instead of simply out to their own bins.

Although the issue appears not to be raised in the Altötting case, there seems to be a question as well of who "owns" their wastes. Especially if wastes become important raw materials with value to the circular economy, laws that force citizens to give up their valuables into the properly colored bin for "donation" to the general cause become questionable. Certainly, one can imagine citizens who currently use the product of their compost pile for their own garden would be loath to have to give their organic wastes up to a governmental collection system.

The question was sent forward to the courts some time ago so hopefully some legal questions will be answered shortly. In the meantime, this should also be a case study for people who write legislation. It is difficult to always predict the unintended consequences of legislation, but the importance of thinking it through is made clear by the "compost rebels" (as the German news has called them).

German city going to court to fight composting
The strange story of a fight against composting laws, by a community that loves composting

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