A new recycling law is soon to be drawn up in Germany. Its primary aim should be to make the very most of the potential hidden in municipal waste in order to drive forward raw material efficiency. The potential increase in recycling volumes should not fall by the wayside because of disputes about who is responsible for what. There is no reason why the responsibility for putting volumes out to tender should not be handed over to local authorities, if contracts are awarded in an environment of fair competition and private sector firms are not ousted from the market as a result of in-house agreements. A guest commentary by Franz Untersteller MdL, Minister of the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector for the German state of Baden-Württemberg, on the new recycling law and on reorganising the system used to collect recyclables in Germany.
20 years ago, our landfills were overflowing and those responsible had no idea what to do with the growing volumes of waste. This was the point when the idea of product responsibility came into being – the idea that waste packaging should be taken back by retailers.
Producers offered to pick up the packaging themselves straight from the consumers. However, instead of developing a genuine take-back system, they organised the so-called ‘dual system’ alongside the public waste collection services. They added the cost of this to the price of their products – a hidden mark-up for packaging that consumers have been paying ever since.
It is high time that a clear decision is made and a reliable environment created for investments to be made.
And what about the original objectives? Smaller packaging and less waste thanks to product responsibility? Not a chance! The only environmentally friendly outcome has been that a certain amount of the plastic packaging must be recycled for re-use. This is all far too little looking at the technology available!
Few environmental advantages, high costs – for me, that can only mean one thing: ‘dual systems’ are nonsense, at best an end in itself but most certainly not a model suitable for a modern waste management sector. We should, therefore, do away with this system. Why not hand over the responsibility for waste packaging to local and district authorities? They are not only able to do this work, they want to do it.
Initiated by the German state of Baden-Württemberg, we worked together with the states of Bremen, Hessen, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Pfalz, Schleswig-Holstein and Thüringen to draw up a model for a modern recycling law.
Our goal must be to collect recyclables using as simple a system as possible and to ensure they are sent for high quality recycling.
In this model, the responsibility for organising the collection of packaging waste and non-packaging waste made of similar materials is handed over completely to local authorities. A central organisation should then be set up which is in charge of putting the sorting and recycling of the recyclable materials out to tender so that there continues to be competition in this area.
The clear division of responsibilities in our model takes the interests of the municipal waste management companies and those of the private recycling sector into account in equal measure. Moreover, the new system is much easier for consumers to understand as transparency would be greatly increased.
I truly believe that the simpler the collection system and the clearer the division of responsibilities, the more effective and cheaper the final outcome will be. The development of the ‘dual system’ over the last 20 years clearly shows that inordinate differentiation does not improve matters – and this can also be seen by the discussions about how the system should be financed.
By the way, I also believe that it is essential that manufacturers and retailers are included in our model and that they should pay a proportion of the costs for collecting, sorting and recycling the materials. Whether it be a resource tax, a fee or a licence solution via a central organisation – I am sure that we can find a decent solution if we put our heads together.
The new recycling law should prescribe ambitious recycling rates – a minimum 50 percent of all collected materials.
It goes without saying for me that the new system must not lower environmental standards. On the contrary: the new recycling law should prescribe ambitious recycling rates, especially for plastics, with a minimum 50 percent of the collected volumes being sent for materials recycling and not just the licensed amounts, as has been the case so far. Innovations have ground to a halt over the last few years – also because the legislator has failed to set ambitious recycling rates. We must alter this situation asap!
I deliberately talk about recyclables here. Our goal must be to collect recyclables using as simple a system as possible and to ensure they are sent for high quality recycling. With the overall objective being to conserve our planet’s natural resources, it makes absolutely no difference whether the recyclables are generated from packaging or non-packaging, especially when it involves composites, plastics and metals.
Following years of stagnation and the many discussions on the future of collecting recyclables, it is high time that a clear decision is made and a reliable environment created for investments to be made. It is to be feared, however, looking at the key parameters submitted by the Federal government for the new recycling law, that the current outdated system is likely to be further strengthened. I will continue to argue in favour of our model so that we can achieve our environmental objectives and so that private sector businesses and municipal waste management companies have the security they need.
Franz Untersteller began working for the Institute for Applied Ecology in Freiburg while studying Engineering (majoring in landscape planning) at university; he held a seat on the Institute’s board between 2002 and 2011. He earned his political spurs between 1983 and 2006 when he advised the Baden-Württemberg Green Party on environmental and energy issues. He has been a parliamentary party member of the Green Party in the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg since 2006 and was the party’s deputy chairman until 2011. He was appointed Minister of the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector for the German state of Baden-Württemberg in May 2011.
Franz Untersteller MdL, Minister of the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector for the German state of Baden-Württemberg
Experience has shown that the ‘dual system’ has some major weaknesses, especially when it comes to finding stable and adequate funds to finance the service. All suggestions to improve the system are welcome. What is essential, however, is that such suggestions include the private sector so as to promote fair competition. This is the only way to guarantee that consumers will continue to receive the best possible service for the best possible price.