Germany: A Recycling Program That Actually Works

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In 2009, President Obama was inaugurated, Facebook had 360 million users, and the iPhone was still a rather new invention.

In 2017, President Trump was inaugurated, Facebook has hit 2 billion users, and we have a robot that disassembles old iPhones for recycling.

The world has changed quite a bit.

Also in 2009, we wrote a series of articles called “Trash Planet” on recycling and waste management efforts in several countries around the world. We got curious to see how those countries are doing today, so we went and took a second look at Germany, a country that runs one of the most successful recycling and waste management program out there. We’re also going to examine their adoption of renewable energy.

Where Germany Stands Today

In 2009, Germany’s total recycling rate hovered at 70 percent. For 2015, the most recent year data is available, its recycling rate was a strong 79 percent.

Germany actually leads the EU when it comes to recycling municipal waste, according to Eurostat data. Here are the top five EU countries by municipal recycling rates for 2015:

  • Germany: 66.1 percent
  • Austria: 56 percent
  • Slovenia: 54.1 percent
  • Belgium: 53.4 percent
  • Switzerland: 52.7 percent

Now, before you jump to the comments to say there’s a typo, the total recycling rate and municipal recycling rate are actually two different things. Often when comparing recycling rates between countries, we look at the municipal recycling rate, which for Germany was 66.1 percent in 2015. The total recycling rate includes recycling that happened before products ever reached consumers, such as recycling manufacturing waste.

According to preliminary data published by Germany’s Federal Statistics Office, the country’s total waste volume was 402.2 million metric tons in 2015. Of that, 317.7 million metric tons were recycled. Total waste includes waste generated by the construction industry, production facilities and municipalities.

While Germany’s recycling and waste management program has continued to grow, they have also successfully transitioned a large portion of their electricity consumption to renewable energy.

Germany’s renewable energy sources consist of solar, wind, biomass and hydro, with wind producing the greatest amount of the four. In 2015, renewable energy accounted for 12.4 percent of Germany’s total energy consumption. In 2009, renewable energy only accounted for 8.9 percent of total energy consumption. While Germany lags behind a number of other EU countries, the nation continues to press hard to reach its 2020 goal of 20 percent renewable energy consumption.

Why Are Germany’s Waste Management and Renewable Energy Programs Successful?

Germany’s waste management success really comes down to two things: strong government policy and its citizens embracing recycling. The renewable energy success has come primarily from strong government policy and action.

Germany’s Waste Management Policies

In our previous review of Germany, we dove deep into the various policies the German government has implemented in regards to waste management. Here’s a quick review of those policies:

Packaging Ordinance

This ruling made in 1991 required manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging after a consumer was finished using it. This included transportation packaging, secondary packaging (i.e., the box around soda cans) and the primary packaging (i.e., the soda can).

Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act

Established in 1996, this act applies to anyone that produces, markets or consumes goods and dictates that they are responsible for the materials’ reuse, recycling or environmentally sound disposal. This act particularly targeted producers and encouraged them to focus on one of three waste management strategies: waste avoidance, waste recovery and environmentally compatible disposal.

In other words, businesses need to avoid producing any waste, recycle what they do produce, and anything that can’t be recycled must be disposed of in an environmentally safe way.

“The concept in which private industries are responsible for eliminating waste — and for covering the costs — is described as the ‘polluter pays’ principle. In other words, those who create the waste are responsible for cleaning up the mess. The U.S. has a ‘consumer pays’ policy, in which waste management is funded by taxpaying citizens.” —Marie Look, writer of “Trash Planet: Germany”

The Green Dot

The Green Dot is just that, a green dot that’s placed on the outside of packaging indicating it must be accepted by recyclers. Depending on their packaging, manufacturers pay a fee to the DSD (Dual System Germany) and are then given permission to place the green dot on their packaging. Companies using the green dot have promised to abide by all of Germany’s recycling laws.

Over the years, the above three policies have greatly assisted Germany in not only increasing its recycling rate but also building a culture of recycling among citizens.

Germany’s Recycling Culture

The above three policies led to recycling bins being placed everywhere in Germany. Unlike in the United States, where most communities have a trash bin and a recycling bin, Germany has multiple recycling bins, requiring its citizens to do the sorting themselves.

There are six different bins: black for general waste, blue for paper, yellow for plastic, white for clear glass, green for colored glass and brown for composting.

By pre-sorting their recycling, the German government saves a significant amount of money and also reduces the amount of contamination that can potentially ruin entire batches of recycled material. This process of sorting certainly didn’t happen overnight, but with time it became a habit for German residents and, in fact, a matter of pride.

Renewable Energy Growth

While Germany’s waste management policies have propelled the country to the top of the list, its efforts to produce more renewable energy haven’t gone quite as smoothly or quickly.

Germany’s shift away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy has been given the name Energiewende. The objective, of course, is to ultimately power the country on 100 percent renewable energy. In 2016, estimates say they produced about 30 percent of their needed power through renewable energy, with wind and solar being the bulk of that. This is a truly impressive number and should be applauded.

One of the arguments so often used against wind and solar energy is reliability. If the sun isn’t shining and the winds are calm, where does your energy come from? For now, fossil fuels still supply energy during these down times, but with improvements to battery technology, Germany hopes to continue to decrease its need to use fossil fuels. Germany, which is known for having a reliable grid, has managed to mix the use of renewable energy and fossil fuels quite well. In fact, on a particularly windy and sunny day in May 2017, Germany managed to supply 85 percent of its energy needs with renewable energy.

One struggle Germany is facing, however, is the high cost of subsidies that were initially used to make renewable energy competitive with fossil fuels. In order to meet its renewable energy goals, Germany offered large subsidies to get more people to install solar panels and wind turbines. These subsidies pay users a set price per kilowatt hour of electricity that is put back into the grid. These prices are set for 20 years. When these set prices were selected, legislators underestimated the rapid advancements in solar technology, which drastically reduced the costs of solar energy. In order to cover the cost of the subsidies, the price of electricity has increased by 50 percent from 2007 to 2016. Though new contracts aren’t such a burden, Germany will have to fulfill payment on the previous contracts.

While nuclear energy still plays an important role in the power grid, by 2022 Germany plans to have all 19 of its nuclear reactors shut down. Renewable energy is expected to make up for the loss in energy currently supplied by these reactors.

Overall, Germany has made impressive advancements in its use of renewable energy. And while the country isn’t leading the EU in use of renewable energy, it’s way ahead of most other nations around the world.

Germany is a great example of running an effective and efficient waste management program. Its policies have worked well and its citizens are on board with efforts to both recycle and make use of renewable energy. Indeed, it is their countrymen’s desire to create a greener future that has led legislators to create these laws and push forward in their efforts to use renewable energy.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

Read More:
Trash Planet: Brazil
Trash Planet: China
Trash Planet: The Netherlands

Brian Brassaw

Brian Brassaw

Brian formerly managed the Earth911 Recycling Search and shared green living tips and tricks on Earth911’s Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter accounts. Brian also shares DIY projects on Little Pilots Lounge.
Brian Brassaw