The recent strike by the Verdi union showed just how dependent society is on a functioning garbage disposal system. If garbage collectors don’t come and recycling centers remain closed, it only takes a few days for the discarded stuff to spill out of the bins. What to do with all the packaging, organic waste, to-go cups? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to produce less waste? And reuse or recycle more?
In order to achieve the climate goals and to secure more raw materials in the future, the legislators in the European Union and the federal government urgently need to deal with waste and recycling management.
There are currently a number of smaller and larger projects for new laws and regulations with the aim of shrinking the huge mountain of rubbish. But a look into the political engine room shows that there is probably nothing more complicated than regulating waste streams.
Germans produce a particularly large amount of waste
Thousands of materials are manufactured, processed, used and thrown away. The Germans are at the forefront: according to an estimate by the Federal Statistical Office, every person in this country produced an average of 646 kilograms of municipal waste in 2021, more than 100 kilograms more than the EU average. This results in the unbelievable amount of more than 50 million tons of municipal waste. This includes waste from households, trade, commerce, offices and facilities as well as bulky waste, garden waste or the contents of waste bins. About the same amount has been accumulated here for years. What to do?
Steffi Lemke, Green Federal Environment Minister, announced in January that she would tackle the “pollution crisis”: “Our environment deserves it.” In doing so, she campaigned for the disposable plastic fund regulation, a special levy for manufacturers of products that often end up in parks, streams or on the side of the road, such as cigarette filters, to-go cups, fireworks or balloons. According to the Bundestag, from 2024 they should contribute around 430 million euros a year to the costs of disposal, which will primarily benefit the municipalities.
But does that reduce waste? The Federal Association of Municipal Associations has already indicated that manufacturers will probably quickly switch to materials that have not yet been sanctioned.
Some attempts to reduce waste seem almost desperate. Since January, restaurants, caterers and delivery services have had to offer their customers reusable packaging in the hope that they will accept the offer. But implementation is slow.
From 2024 onwards, waste incineration is to be included in greenhouse gas emissions trading, several million tons of carbon dioxide are produced here every year. The Association of Municipal Companies (VKU) warns of additional costs of almost one billion euros, which would ultimately have to be passed on to waste fees. If waste becomes more expensive, will it also become less? In fact, large amounts of organic waste or electronic devices end up in the residual waste bin, and higher fees could be an incentive to separate better.
From 2025, textiles will no longer be allowed in the residual waste
“Small steps are being taken, but they are really very small,” says Janine Korduan, consultant for recycling management at the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND), “I don’t think the mountain of rubbish will be noticeably smaller as a result.” She criticizes that the problem has so far often been addressed at the end of the chain. So with the garbage. But by then it is usually too late.
Example textiles. From 2025 onwards, old clothes may no longer be disposed of in the residual waste, but must be collected separately. Delara Burkhardt, environmental policy spokeswoman for the SPD MEPs, organized a round of talks with 350 industry experts, in which all of them expressed their fundamental will to recycle old textiles. “But the disposal companies say they often can’t even see how sweaters, jackets or trousers are put together,” says Burkhardt. The mixing ratio between synthetic fibers and cotton is different, they are often glued together and mixed with toxins. It is not yet technically possible to recycle textiles on a large scale, says Burkhardt.
A rethink has therefore taken place, at least at the EU Commission. Last year, for example, the authority presented a proposal to expand the Ecodesign Directive, which stipulates how products must initially be designed so that as many parts as possible can be reused in the end.
So far, it has applied to large electrical appliances such as refrigerators and dishwashers, but now smartphones and tablets are to be added. Manufacturers must also provide spare parts because the EU is preparing a directive for the “right to repair”.
In addition, packaging waste should be reduced. A big project, because in the years 2009 to 2020 the amount of waste in the EU increased by 20 percent. According to EU forecasts, the amount is likely to increase again by almost a fifth by 2030. Above all, online trading and takeaway consumption are causing consumption to skyrocket. “We have to change the dynamics in these markets,” said Mattia Pellegrini, Director General for Environmental Policy in the EU Commission, recently at an event organized by the news portal Euraktiv.
In Germany, around 60 percent of plastic waste is still incinerated
A Commission proposal for a regulation now sets targets for waste avoidance and reuse of packaging for the first time. Everything should be recyclable by 2030. In the case of plastic in particular, we are a long way from this. Currently, only about 40 percent of plastic waste in Germany is processed, the rest is incinerated.
The ordinance regulates the design of packaging in a total of 65 paragraphs. It is a complicated work, said Pellegrini, and the reactions to it varied widely. The reason for this is that practically all economic sectors are affected, from groceries to retailers, pharmacies, the beverage market and of course online retailers. You can’t make everyone happy, said Pellegrini, but added: “If you don’t regulate the design of the packaging, you can’t solve the problem.” But if more is recycled, it could save around 30 million tons of fossil fuels per year, because plastic production requires petroleum.
Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry reacted rather skeptically to the plans. The chemical industry also makes good money from the production of plastic pellets, which can then be processed further. “These are corporations with a lot of power and direct connections to politics,” says BUND expert Korduan. They employed several hundred lobbyists, “as an environmental organization you can hardly do anything about it.” She therefore expects difficult negotiations. And for the time being there is still a lot of work for the garbage disposal.