By Yvonne Pflieger
Australians always think that Germany and Europe are way ahead when it comes to recycling and waste management. But is this really the case? I investigated during my recent visit to Deggendorf, a small town in lower Bavaria close to the Austrian and Czech borders where I grew up. (It is actually worth a visit when you are in the region. There are great hiking trails close by, a fantastic animal rescue called Gut Aiderbichl, little villages, good restaurants, …). And it is the Gate to the Bavarian Forest. 🙂
Let’s start with some stats* and keep in mind that Germany has about 3.5 times the population of Australia (82m), but Australia is about 22x larger (7.7m square kilometres vs. 0.357m square kilometres):
Germany generates about 6 million tons of plastic waste per year – 1.4m of these were plastic packaging^. [In comparison Australia generates 0.66m tons per year.]
The majority of this plastic waste comes from households (5 m tons), 1 m ton is manufacturing industry generated. Out of this,
1.4 m tons are being exported,
3.1 m tons are being incinerated to generate energy,
only 1.5 m tons are being recycled (about 25-30%).
This means though that a whopping 70% of this plastic waste is NOT being recycled [the number is higher in Australia at 80%].
And worse the amount of plastic waste generated by households has more than doubled in the last 20 years (from 1994 to 2015)!
Looking at takeaway cups as a single waste stream, Germans consume 2.8 billion take-away coffee cups per year [in Australia that is over 1 billion cups]
Food waste is also an issue despite most regions having an in-house compost, so 18 million tons of food waste still end up in landfill on a yearly basis. [It is 5 m. tons in Australia as per OZHarvest stats].
My observations are made in Bavaria, lower Bavaria to be exact, in the small town of Deggendorf. Things are generally different in Bavaria … 😉
Bavarian households have a brown bin for organic and garden waste (with a small bin provided for the kitchen), a blue bin for paper and cardboard and a black general waste bin. About 80% of glass and paper are being recycled.
Single-use glass bottles and tins need to be taken to recycling islands which are spread across the different areas of a town (glass bottles will need to be sorted by colour: white, brown and green).
In most cities and regions across Germany a yellow bin (Gelbe Tonne) or Yellow Bag (Gelber Sack) is provided to households for all plastic packaging. These bins / bags get collected at regular intervals.
The yellow bin / bag system is not available in some regional areas (i.e. Deggendorf where I am from). In Deggendorf, plastic packaging and drink cartons need to be taken to a recycling center proactively. The percentage of households doing this would be quite low. I have not been able to find actual stats though.
Even if a household is adding all plastic packaging to the yellow bags, only 40% do actually get recycled, the rest is often contaminated with household waste or not suitable to be recycled (different types of plastics, bioplastics, …). The German packaging law requires for 63% to be reused by 2022, currently this sits at 45%, the rest is being incinerated. The EU plans for all plastic packaging to be all recyclable and reusable by 2030.
The yellow bin / bag is not part of the municipal waste management, but financed privately and part of what Germany calls the dual system (“Duales System”). Manufacturers and retail companies pay license fees for the use of packaging to one of 10 companies like “Der Gruene Punkt, Belland-Vision, Veolia, Zentek, Landbell or Interseroh. With the license fee income those companies pay for the removal and recycling of the packaging. This is actually quite similar to Australia where RedCycle has partnered with Coles and Woolies and some manufacturers for soft plastics specifically.
One of the most amazing things about waste management in Germany is the brown bin, it has been around for as long as I can remember. All organic and food scraps as well as vegetation and gardening waste can go into this bin. It is perfect for apartment dwellers as they don’t need to think about what to do with their food scraps and removes so much waste from landfill! I would love for this to exist in Australia, especially in the major cities with a lot of apartment blocks, only few councils have managed to get this right so far. I am not yet convinced that Northern Beaches Council’s new system that asks for food scraps to go in with general waste to be sorted at the facility will solve the issue of food waste ending up in landfill and generating green house gas emissions. Keen to learn more about this new system that will be introduced in 2019.
Great news is that the European Parliament this week approved measures that could lead to a ban on single-use plastic items like straws, cotton swabs, disposable plastic plates and cutlery, as well as plastic coffee stirrers, plastic balloon holders, lightweight plastic bags and polystyrene fast food containers, by 2021.[~]
These points were also part of the proposal:
Reduce the use of single-use plastic food containers and cups.
Manufacturers will need to help cover the costs of waste management and cleanup and raise awareness of the impacts of cigarette butts, wet wipes, balloons, plastic bags and candy and potato chip wrappers.
Member states are encouraged to use a deposit refund scheme or similar to collect 90 percent of single-use plastic bottles by 2025.
Menstrual pads, wet wipes and balloons will be required to add a notification on how to dispose of the product properly.
Member states should raise awareness about the dangers of single-use plastic items.
Producers of plastic fishing gear will be required to cover the costs of waste collection in ports.
Now it is all about negotiating with the individual countries that form the European Union to push this through before the next European elections in May 2019.
All in all, there are differences between Germany and Australia, but in the end things are not that far apart. Plastic recycling is the big issue no matter where you look. Bioplastics are making things worse as they contaminate the plastic recycling stream. Germany is burning a lot of plastics to generate energy which I don’t believe is the way to go (this is what Sweden does mostly as well, reason why their ‘recycling’ rates are so high).
First and foremost, it is about avoiding and refusing unnecessary packaging and looking for unpackaged or reusable alternatives. I love my Manly Food Co-Op where I buy all of my grocery and household needs in my own containers. Here in Germany in the lower Bavaria region this is not that easy. Unpackaged shops are popping up more and more across Germany, but they are still concentrated around cities. If you live in the countryside, options are very limited, there are really just farmers markets and some more high-end supermarkets who provide package-free fruit and veg and antipasto, but when it comes to dry goods like beans, mueslis etc., there is no other choice than to buy packaged.
Consumers have all the power to drive change, but the law also needs to make its mark and force manufacturers and retailers to become and feel more responsible. Europe and Germany are finally putting guidelines in place with decent targets. Good luck to them in their negotiations with the different member states! Still a long way to go, but at least a good start and a good example for Australia to follow. Do you think Australia will follow?
*Source: Brand Eins, October 2018 for German stats, ABC War on Waste for Australian stats)
About the Author Yvonne Pflieger: Yvonne is passionate about our oceans and on a journey to a zero waste lifestyle. She makes her own beauty products, grows food on her balcony, loves cooking and has fallen in love with rescue dogs. She runs the Co-Op’s marketing efforts and is a member of the current board. You can reach her via firstname.lastname@example.org. This post has also been published on her blog sustainabilityqueen.com.