Green Extremes Germany's Failing Environmental Projects

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Part 2: Garbage


I sort my garbage. There are four symmetrically arranged containers in front of my front door: a blue one for paper and a yellow one for plastic on the right, along with a brown one for compost and a gray one for everything else on the left. It doesn't look very nice. It also stinks a little, especially on summer days when I wouldn't mind sitting outside. But I know that I have to make sacrifices.

The German ordinance on packaging is respected, and the product recycling regulations are held in high esteem. According to the rules of Germany's dual system of waste management, when yoghurt containers are put into the recycling bin, they have to be "completely empty," "drop-free" and "spoon-clean." Some people even put the containers in the dishwasher before stuffing them into a yellow recycling bag.

But then something strange happens. My yoghurt container, which I've carefully rinsed and sorted, isn't recycled at all. In fact, it's dumped into an incinerator with all the rest of the garbage and burned.

Yes, this is allowed. By law, the dual system is required to recycle exactly 36 percent of plastic waste. Waste disposal companies can do what they want -- and what is most cost-effective for them -- with the remaining 64 percent. As a result, much of it ends up in waste incinerators for what's called "thermal recycling," bringing the cycle to a sudden end.

The federal government's council of experts on environmental issues has argued for years that the entire system needs to be fundamentally reconceived. In principle, two garbage cans ought to be sufficient, say experts: one for moist garbage like food waste and diapers, and the other for everything else.

The moist waste would first be used to generate biogas, and then it would be incinerated. The dry waste would be sorted automatically and as much of it as possible would be recycled. The concept has many advantages. It's less work for citizens, for one thing. It would help the environment, for another. Everything would be easier.

But nothing will come of it. Instead, a dispute has now erupted between private and municipal waste disposal companies over who is responsible for which waste. As a result, we recently got a fifth garbage bin, the "valuable materials bin."

When I came home from work one evening, there it was: bright orange with a capacity of 240 liters. Now there's even less room in our driveway, but I'm sure I'll get used to it. I'm even thinking of getting a sixth bin for waste glass, which we've been keeping in a makeshift box at the basement staircase until now. Six garbage cans would also restore symmetry.

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