Germany's rubbish revolution

Issue 

By Greg Peters

When the Wall fell, the rubble rolled towards Bonn. One of the hidden political costs of reunification was the problem of rubbish.

Germans throw away 40 million tonnes of it every year. Bonn was used to paying to dispose of waste in the east, but unity put an end to that. Not only did the East German waste disposal companies collapse when the D-mark marched in, but the unstable tips they used could not be reopened in the face of green opposition. New incinerators are unacceptable wherever they are proposed, and current land fill sites will overflow in 10 years.

These circumstances have given rise to an experiment which some hail as a new industrial revolution. Others view it as a social outrage.

About a third of a typical western garbage bin is filled with packaging, much of it decorative or unnecessary. In an attempt to make manufacturers directly responsible for minimising packaging, the government passed laws requiring industry to take back and recycle packaging materials. The laws are now being tested in Bonn and its immediate environs. In 1993, when the laws take effect nationwide, 50% of packaging is to be recycled. In July 1995, the requirement will be 80%.

"This is the end of the throw-away society", claims Klaus Täpfler, the minister for the environment. The system works as follows:

1. Households sort their rubbish into separate bins for glass, paper, organic waste and packaging. The system of municipal garbage rates has been structured to encourage households to do this.

2. The bins are emptied monthly. The packaging is taken to a central sorting depot and the other recyclable materials go their separate ways back to the consumer. In the depot the packaging undergoes three stages of sorting:

3. Workers quickly rummage through the piles of rubbish on the depot floor, removing articles mistakenly placed in the yellow packaging bins, such as car tyres and frying pans.

4. The automated stage: the rubbish is carried to the top of a stripper column — a large cyclinder where plastic bags are blown off the falling rubbish by air jets.

5. The controversial stage: the waste is manually sorted from a large conveyor belt into eight separate classes. From there it goes back to the manufacturer.

Some of the packaging takes a month to reach the workers at the conveyor belt, and some of it has a life of its own. The room stinks. Immigrants from Sri Lanka, Africa, Turkey and other parts of Asia stand side by side, fishing out milk cartons, yoghurt cups and shampoo bottles from the waste stream. Their only protection from the health hazards are gloves and surgical face masks. It is monotonous labour and poorly paid. Not a single German applied for a job there.

In order to comply with the recycling laws, manufacturers joined forces to create Duales System Deutschland. DSD licenses the use of the "Green Point" — a symbol that guarantees that the manufacturer will recycle the package.

In the competition to create the greenest image, companies have been swift to adopt this symbol. The cost to the manufacturer depends on the bulkiness of the packaging and can be as high as 65 cents per item. This money goes towards DSD's equipment and payroll and should allow future expansion. In 1995, the company expects to sort $1.8 billion worth of waste, most of that value aluminium.

On the surface, this looks like a positive breakthrough in closing the consumption cycle, yet not everyone is happy with DSD. The immigrants are glad to have any work, even this, but public criticism of the experiment begins with them.

Many Germans are embarrassed by the use of poorly paid "guest workers" for this obnoxious task. Even the Christian Democrats acknowledge the manual sorting phase as "the weakness in the system". Others describe it as "humanly unacceptable."

Environmental organisations have other citicisms centred on the Green Point. This has had the positive effect of reducing the size of some packaging. For example, camembert tins and toothpaste tubes have lost their boxes, and plastic bubbles around kitchen utensils have been replaced by smaller amounts of cardboard and string.

But plastic bottles receive the Green Point, and not all of them are truly recyclable. Genuine recycling involves the replacement of industrial raw materials with the used product; most of the 200 kinds of plastic packaging can only be reprocessed into simpler forms. But the symbol encourages consumers to believe that plastic bottles are environmentally benign.

"The whole recycling system legalises the packaging madness", says Wolfgang Planker, spokesman for the BBU, an unbrella organisation for 300 environmental and consumer-action groups. "Before DSD existed, we sorted our rubbish in the kitchen. I took a plastic case to the shops when I wanted to buy ham so as to avoid plastic bags. Now they're freely used because everyone knows they're recycled."

Planker believes the overall generation of waste will increase when DSD goes nationwide and argues that energy issues have been neglected: no-one knows how much extra coal and petrol will burnt to fuel the transportation, sorting and recycling of packaging.

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