The war over waste: how too little garbage threatens recycling

Green dot yellow recycling bins
© DSD Green Dot

German households make too little trash. What sounds like the successful culmination of policies to divert trash from landfill and promote recycling may now actually reduce the quantity of materials that get recycled instead of burned. The battle heating up in the land of world class waste separation offers a case study in urban planning and waste management.

In the late 1980’s Germany faced the same burgeoning flood of consumer waste rapidly filling limited landfill space that most industrialized nations have experienced. Two forces primarily contributed to solving the problem: laws made suppliers responsible to take back packaging – with required recycling quotas – and incineration facilities expanded.

Now the incinerators and the recyclers fight for the same wastes. Although recovering material value trumps burning for energy in true sustainability assessment, this battle may be won on short-term economics. At least that is the fear expressed by Norbert Voell, press officer of the company DSD (Duales System Deutschland/Dual System Germany).

DSD is the largest of a group of companies that manage recyclable household wastes separated by consumers into special yellow bins under what is often called the “Green Dot” (Grüner Punkt) system. In Voell’s words:

if the municipalities “get hold of our yellow bags and yellow bins, they will use this for incineration, to fill the capacity".

When Voell refers to the municipalities, he means major German cities that made deals with private companies guaranteeing a minimum amount of waste in return for the private investment in incinerator facilities. With waste quantities well below the anticipated volumes, these cities now experience financial penalties, even paying incinerators for failure to meet contractual obligations. A couple of examples:

  • Oberlausitz-Niederschlesien owed 3.1 million Euros (US $4 million) to the company that operates an incinerator there;
  • Stuttgart and surrounding communities are buying waste at discount prices to offset what they owe in penalties, dropping the cost to the municipality from over a million to about 280-320,000 Euros;
  • In Cologne, residents complain that they pay the original contract prices while residents of cities that failed to commit to an incineration solution now benefit from “dumping prices".

The Association of Local Utilities (Verband kommunaler Unternehmen, or VKU) plays a strong counterpoint to the private companies like DSD which organize the collection and recycling of packaging on behalf of the packaging suppliers.

The VKU advocates control of all waste management by the municipalities, which threatens the highly efficient collection of waste that has been demonstrated by the private sector initiatives.

Two key changes have made it difficult for companies like DSD to fight the VKU efforts. First, anti-monopolistic regulation opened the recycling market to a number of competitors. This required that collection and fees be re-organized. Now the system operates more as a clearing-house. Packagers can contract with a company of their choice; collected recyclables are divided proportionally based on market share. This leaves the free market recyclers without a single voice against the municipalities.

Second, the collection contracts were opened to the cheapest bidder. Formerly, the municipalities got a nice cash influx because the DSD payed handsomely for sharing the benefits of the city waste collection services. Now, the competitive price pressures have reduced the benefit of sharing with DSD for the municipalities. In a recent precedent setting case, the court for the Ravensburg region declared that the private companies like DSD do not derive any “ownership” of the post-consumer materials subject to their collection contracts – supporting the rights of the municipalities to just keep all the recyclables they collect instead of handing them over to the DSD for separation and resale of the recyclables.

When asked directly 'what prevents the municipalities from diverting post-consumer materials to incinerators?,' the VKU replied that, in principle, only waste without high recycling value is incinerated in Germany. The background information provided by the VKU proves interesting however: it challenges whether many recyclables currently separated for reclaim are indeed valuable, making a case that incineration for energy recovery provides a better option, especially for complex packaging made of multiple materials.

On the other hand, the VKU rightly points out that many non-packaging recyclables fall through the cracks of the current system. Lacking the incentive of the Packaging Ordinance (Verpackungsverordnung or VerpackV), retailers of products that incorporate recyclable materials have had little incentive to join the packaging suppliers in establishing a comprehensive system for improving product recyclability or keeping materials in the active life cycle.

If the municipalities take over recycling in Germany, it puts an end to a system of recycling that has proven to be very efficient at returning materials to the value chain. The risks – that more recyclables go to trash in case of a less consumer friendly system, that recyclables are diverted to waste-to-energy feed in order to offset poorly designed incineration contracts, and that inappropriate political and bureaucratic incentives undermine the ultimate goal of materials recovery – must not be underestimated.

The issue has not yet penetrated to the level of broad recognition by the public, creating a danger that forces behind the scenes could derail a highly efficient system in favor of an unproven concept with a high potential for reducing the oft-cited praise of German citizens as the world champions of waste separation and recycling. It would be a shame to see such a recycling success story go up in flames.

The war over waste: how too little garbage threatens recycling
Follow the money to see how recycling could be the big loser as the world champions of waste separation debate the future

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