Right thinking, but wrong bin

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Eliminating separation errors could improve recycling rate

Room for improvement even for Germany, the world’s waste-separation champion

Depending on how people in other countries see things, Germans are often praised or ridiculed for being the world’s waste-separation champions. Most households in the country have a bin for packaging waste, another for organic waste and yet another for residual waste, but the separation of waste by consumers is not going as well as it should because packaging waste is ending up in the wrong bin, something that the waste-disposal industry calls ‘intelligente Fehlwürfe’, literally ‘intelligent misthrows’. It is one of the reasons why recycling rates for plastics are lower than those for paper, glass and metals. It is useful therefore to remind oneself from time to time which waste belongs in which bin. 

When it comes to waste separation, Germany’s citizens are already achieving figures that are unparalleled, and not only in Europe. According to official figures, 70 to 75 per cent of packaging waste ends up in the right bin. The figures for paper and glass are comparable. Only in the case of organic waste do experts still see some room for improvement. All in all, Germans are willing to make their contribution to meeting the targets for recycling used packaging. According to the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), 94.5 per cent of the packaging generated by consumers in 2018 was recycled to recover the material or used to generate energy, which means that the resources in the waste were used again. In the case of material recovery, the materials in question can be reused, in other words put back into the economic cycle once again.

Recycling target to rise to 63 per cent

With a new act that came into force in January 2019 and covers the making available on the market, taking back and high-quality recycling of packaging – better known as the Packaging Act – German legislators have once again tightened up recycling requirements significantly. Since 2019, for example, the Packaging Act has prescribed recycling rates of 58.5 per cent for plastic packaging. These requirements will rise to 63 per cent in 2022. As official figures show, recycling rates for plastic packaging have been increasing markedly in recent years. 

In addition, the Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) notes that the increase in recycling rates has already triggered considerable investments in the industry. Germany has state-of-the-art facilities for recycling plastic packaging that can produce high-quality recycled plastics from waste, which debunks the preconception that plastic packaging can only be downcycled, in other words reused for a less-demanding application. Food packaging, for example, for which plastics are particularly popular because they protect products so well and keep them fresh, can be reprocessed and used again with foodstuffs. The BMU now sees the challenge to be the establishment of a reliable market for recyclates in Europe so that the increased recycling rates can actually lead to improvements in the circular economy.

Separate as much as possible

But for higher recycling rates to be achieved or to become feasible, consumers will also have to make a greater contribution. To achieve the best possible recycling – not only with plastics – it is necessary to separate the packaging waste into its different material groups as much as possible. There are companies that specialise in this, but their work is made much more difficult, for example, if there are still remnants of the packaged product in or on the packaging – for example, if the yoghurt pot still has food residues attached. This does not mean that used packaging must be rinsed before it is put into the bin. However, shaking out the last remnants from the tzatziki container, for example, before throwing it away should not be too much to ask of anyone.

Those who want to do even more can, for example, remove the aluminium foil from the yoghurt pot, or peel the paper sleeve off a pack. There are many other examples of such small actions that help reduce the workload for the machinery used in sorting centres and contribute to greater sorting purity, and ultimately to higher recycling rates. The motto is always simple: separate what can be separated!

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