Why you should care
Because everybody wants to get recycling right.
According to most Western perceptions, Germany is a place where order and efficiency reign supreme: Fast cars, high-quality machinery and clean cities are testaments to the country’s love for all things functional and tidy. It has also taken significant steps to ensure greater environmental protection — an issue many Germans agree is a top public priority — and has even become the world’s leading recycler.
So what’s behind this recent finding?
Last year, 40 to 60 percent of plastic garbage in Germany was improperly discarded.
That’s according to the Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Management (BVSE), a German nongovernmental organization. It reported that up to 60 percent of plastic garbage was thrown into the wrong bin.
Part of the problem may be the painstakingly precise system for separating trash: brown bins for organic waste, yellow bins for recyclable packaging and blue bins for paper products. Nope, we’re not done yet. Bottles get their own three bins, depending on the color of the glass, while black bins are for any nonreusable residual waste, from diapers to cigarette butts.
While that system initially might confuse foreigners, it’s apparently somewhat difficult for Germans too — even though it’s something of a tradition by now. Items like toothbrushes ended up in the yellow bin, which is meant strictly for packaging waste such as plastic, tin or cartons, while moldy packing ended up in the brown bin for biodegradable waste.
The problem is more pronounced in northern regions and urban areas as opposed to the more rural south, where levels of education and social consciousness are higher, according to Thomas Probst, head of the plastics division at BVSE. “So, for instance, if you go to Baden-Württemberg,” he says, “you’ll see yellow sacks and yellow bins that are clearly packed with [packaging] plastics only.”
Germans produce more packaging waste than any other European country.
Still, Probst adds, the overall situation is far from ideal — and it’s gotten worse in the past several years. Part of the explanation may lie in another somewhat unexpected detail: Germans are apparently huge fans of packaging, producing more such waste (about 490 pounds per year per citizen) than any other European country, according to the latest available statistics from Eurostat.
But Germany’s unique waste management system, established shortly after the country’s reunification in the early 1990s, may also hinder progress. It involves an arrangement whereby public trash collection exists in tandem with an industry-funded waste disposal scheme called the “dual system,” which offers the yellow bins. Residual waste collection, however, is public — and, in many municipalities across Germany, increasingly expensive for the average citizen.
As a result, Probst believes, some Germans are electing to dispose of nonpackaging plastics and other waste meant for the public-funded residual bin into the yellow ones, effectively dodging the costs of collection by the municipality, which often charges by volume. “If you change something in the public collection system,” Probst says, “this might also affect the private one.”
While analysts agree the competition between Germany’s two waste disposal systems is generally healthy from an economic perspective, it’s clearly wreaking havoc on the collection of plastic waste. So during your next visit to Berlin, Munich or Hamburg, don’t just pitch in — pay attention to exactly where.