Science of Sustainability: Germany's Waste Management Program

Germany's waste management program is mainly made up of comprehensive recycling, composting, and as little waste as possible with the help of laws and industrial procedures.

This could easily have been an Edmonton vs Kassel post, as Edmonton is known for it's municipal recycling program, except that Germany has a national program, so for that I'll only touch upon Edmonton's program briefly. In the late 1980's, Edmonton filled it's landfill and had a unique opportunity to change the way we think about waste as a city. Recycling was incorporated into Edmonton's plan, as well as composting using household waste and biosolids from treated water. Originally the Blue Box program existed where recyclables went into a blue box alongside your garbage bags, it's been the Blue Bag program for a while with the same general idea. Bottle, carton, and can deposits exist across Canada on bottles, cans, and milk containers, and can be turned in for refund at Bottle Depots. In Edmonton, about 60% of household waste is diverted from the landfill, with goals of 90% by 2013.

Recycling. Oh, recycling. Often seen as the easiest step into getting people into the sustainability thought process, because it's easy to sort out your waste, and the personal responsibility can be quite rewarding. Money made of deposit fees are also a bonus. Composting is the best alternative for biodegradable refuse as well. So how does Germany do it?

Before I went to Germany, I thought I knew how to recycle. Edmonton's blue bag program wasn't as strictly followed in my parent's home as my own home, but I thought I was pretty much an expert. Wrong. Germany takes recycling to a whole new level.

Let's start with bottles used for drinking. Most of the time, soda is sold in green or clear glass bottles that carry a pfand, or a deposit. This also happens with plastic bottles, such as those used for carbonated water (that is a post in and of itself). Bottles can be returned at most grocery stores, though some seem to be finicky about whether they carry that beverage or not. Back to recycling, if glass doesn't carry a pfand, it is separated by colour (brown, green, or clear), and put into the appropriate section of the green bin, although outside bins might just be one container. Paper is put into the blue paper bins, and plastic or aluminum packaging material into the yellow bins. Compostable material, such as fruits, veggies, eggs, hair, etc. is put into the brown bins (not shown above, they are harder to find outside of private homes). Finally, anything that doesn't fit these categories goes in the grey bin, RestmΓΌll, the rest of it, which is incinerated. Almost. Anything large or potentially hazardous needs to be dropped off in case it would be harmful to be burned.

PHEW! It was exhausting at first to learn the system. I was used to having a garbage bin in my room to throw everything away. Instead, I ended up hoarding my trash until it was time to separate it.

Aside from recycling, there are other waste policies in Germany, such as waste-to-energy power facilities, or responsible production laws. The latter includes a comprehensive product stewardship program called the Green Dot Program, where companies aim to use the least amount of packaging possible to pay less for the Green Dot, which includes the company paying for the cost of recycling. What's the point? Ethical consumerism is promoted, so consumers look for the green dot on products. It's not only worth it to the companies, it's also environmentally responsible. It encourages positive behaviour from both producers and consumers, and has been linked to a 14% decrease in packaging waste since it's inception. Packaging material that is recycled then feeds into the former, waste-to-energy solutions, where 62% of recycled plastic is converted into fuel.

Oh, and if you don't feel like recycling? Trash is collected and then the homeowner is charged according to weight, so why not use the nationally provided program? Win-win.

I didn't manage to get any pictures of the bins - so out of character! BUT, here is my buddy Michael's trash bin in his room. Supposedly it was unused for years until I used it...
*shrug* See can, will use.


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