BERLIN — Visit a state-of-the-art recycling plant on the outskirts of this historic city, and one cannot help but marvel at the ambition of the facility owner, the Alba Group, one of the 10 largest companies for recycling services and raw material supply worldwide. At its Hellersdorf operation, more than 100,000 tons of packaging waste is processed annually, with the centerpiece a fully automated and very busy system of conveyor belts that distribute and sort assorted refuse by means of infrared sensors, overbelt magnets, sieves and air-blown separators.
The plant represents the best of German engineering and technological prowess. It was born out of a licensing fee system that has since 1990 turned the Germans into a nation of rubbish sorters, but the system, impressive as it may look, still has loopholes you can drive a garbage truck through.
While glass and paper are recycled at rates approaching 100 percent waste retention, plastics, by contrast, barely top 50 percent. Moreover, what’s counted as "recycled" often means the plastics were incinerated. Experts say Germany doesn’t track materials that are rerouted somewhere else, as the French system does.
As a result, German incineration plants’ appetites are huge. They import one-sixth of the required 16 million tons of garbage from the United Kingdom, where a high landfill tax drives waste out of the country. The country has 68 household waste incineration plants, which use district heating systems to pipe enough warmth for 3 million people. In addition, the facilities generate more than 6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity flow from the facilities — enough for 2 million people.
Every year, roughly 45 million tons of waste winds up in a category called "thermal recycling," which has nearly doubled since 2004. Some blame that on misguided laws qualifying energy-efficient incinerators as part of the nation’s much-touted Energiewende, or energy revolution.
As a consequence, both Alba and Remondis — the market leader for packaging waste recycling in Germany — have had to scale back operations, as reported by the Handelsblatt newspaper earlier this month. Of Remondis’ original 17 sorting facilities for plastics, it now runs only three in full-time service.
The road to a ‘circular economy’
Looking ahead, environmental campaigners in Europe say a better approach should not only be a focus on increased processing — as is the German model. Rather, it should include a shift toward waste prevention that sees closed-loop approaches emphasizing everything from longer-lasting product design to remanufacturing and reuse systems.
"Resource politics in Germany tend to focus on ‘waste,’ and what we want to do is look at resources in the first place," said Falko Leukhardt of the Council for Sustainable Development, a quasi-governmental organization that advises the German government and reports directly to the chancellor’s office.
The discussion about achieving what is called a "circular economy" is slowly coming about in Germany, Leukhardt added, but in a piecemeal manner that lacks a unifying vision.
Draft legislation being moved through the Environmental Ministry does, for example, extend producer responsibility laws to nonpackaging items like flower pots made of plastic, kitchen utensils and children’s toys. There is also a proposed system of licensing fees that will be graded according to environmental criteria. For example, it would reward easily recyclable mono plastics with a lower charge compared with heavier, composite plastics that are typically very expensive or even technologically impossible to separate.
These measures will likely shift the market toward greater use of recycled plastics, though to what extent remains unclear. Much of the demand for recycled material has dropped due to a fall in the price of oil, a basic feedstock used to make plastics, according to the BDE Federation, a trade association representing Germany’s waste management industry. Meanwhile, gaps in German recycling laws have enabled waste haulers to take their plastics to be burned in highly inefficient and unregulated cement kilns.
Germany’s road to this mess was paved with good intentions in a 2005 law that banned landfilling, explained Piotr Barczak, a waste policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, a Brussels-based coalition of grass-roots environmental organizations from across the continent. While garbage incineration plants can be operated at relatively high levels of energy efficiency, they are, in effect, using energy to destroy resources. For every ton of waste burned in an incinerator, EEB estimates 20 percent of it will wind up as a hazardous ash that must be stored in a costly landfill.
"They are in a trap," Barczak said of the Germans. "They have an overcapacity of incineration, creating a competition for resources that puts incinerators in direct conflict with recyclers."
Extending the ‘useful life’ of products
As the European Union ponders a landfill ban, environmentalists argue there should also be simultaneous restrictions on incineration. That position has now been adopted by the European Parliament, the body that, along with the European Commission, has joint responsibility for crafting legislation. Viewed as the more environmentally active of the European Union’s institutions, on July 9 it passed a far-reaching set of measures that, among other things, establishes binding 2030 targets that substantially increases recycling rates for municipal (70 percent) and packaging (80 percent) waste.
The goal of the circular economy, then, is that products and materials should be kept at their highest utility and value at all times. Thus, plastic should remain plastic, and that incineration of nonrecyclable waste should be stopped after 2020. Incineration subsidies will also be cut alongside a pledge to gradually limit the landfilling of certain hazardous and residual waste streams.
Across the European Union’s 28 member countries, only 40 percent of materials in the municipal solid waste system is currently recycled. Roughly 25 percent is recycled with energy recovery, and the rest goes to landfills.
"This needs to change," Frans Timmermans recently wrote in a blog post he co-authored with three colleagues from the European Commission, of which he is a first vice president. Led by Timmermans, the commission has opened a public consultation to collect views on a circular economy package that is said to be a more ambitious approach than one that was scrapped in late 2014.
"Products should be designed to be durable, shared, re-used, repaired and recycled," wrote Timmermans, citing a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British group that gives startling numbers on so-called planned obsolescence — the practice of designing products with a purposefully limited life span so that they need to be replaced sooner.
The "useful" life of physical products averages out to only four years, say the report authors, after which only 40 percent of all materials is reused or recycled, at only 3 percent of its original value.
"Even materials such as plastic bottles, steel, paper, deemed to be recycling success stories, experience as much as 75 percent loss of their value from the first time they are used," Timmermans added.
"We need new material standards, secondary material markets and an upgraded recycling system."
Use it here, burn it there is wasteful
What might a circular economy look like in practice?
Already the European Union has an eco-design directive that requires products to be more durable, repairable and recyclable. So far it only addresses energy-related white goods like washing machines and refrigerators. Advocates want to extend the provisions to provide product passports so that consumers have information on recyclable materials and repairability.
If the initiative succeeds, perhaps it might resemble a French law enacted in March that legislates against planned obsolescence. Moving forward, all French appliance manufacturers are required to inform vendors how long spare parts for a given product will be produced. Vendors are then required to inform buyers in writing, and failure to do so can result in up to €15,000 ($16,800) in fines.
France reportedly has plans to enact an additional measure next year that will require manufacturers to replace or repair faulty appliances free of charge for the first two years after they’ve been purchased — basically a mandatory warranty.
As for incineration, the discussion playing out in the Netherlands has already seen major generators like the Amsterdam Waste-to-Energy Co. begin to phase out the two oldest of its three incinerators in the medium term. It’s starting to invest in open networks — essentially smart grids for heat — to which other energy sources such as geothermal energy, biomass or generator-produced heat can also be connected, noted Nicole van Buren, project leader at the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure, an advisory board for the Dutch government on matters of sustainability.
"The investments in the heat network can turn into lock-ins when these networks can only be used for the energy from incineration plants," said van Buren. "This lock-in would be a barrier for the realization of a circular economy."
In the short term, a more immediate solution resides in simply viewing waste as a resource to be traded across borders, just like any other commodity. One could thereby help E.U. member states close down their landfills and simultaneously build up a recycling structure, said Leukhardt.
In the United Kingdom, for example, a high landfill tax now drives much of the waste out to countries like Germany and the Netherlands. That policy decision — to move toward higher recycling targets — was made by British leaders and is now being facilitated, in part, by waste incineration capacity in mainland Europe.
A similar arrangement could be established in Eastern European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, where anti-incineration campaigners are pushing for more progressive recycling policy.
"The point is not just to carry truckloads of waste to Germany to burn it and enable the owners to make a whole lot of money," Leukhardt added. "You would need to find a mechanism where money earned from burning waste here could be used to finance or invest in recycling structures in those other countries."
Tomorrow: What happens after Vermont bans food wastes?