By Brittany Shutts
It’s hard to beat Germany’s recycling system. Multicolored trash bins line the exceptionally clean streets of German cities where the citizens separate colored glass, paper products, packaging, and food and plant waste. There are even some bins for clothes, shoes, and scrap metal. Black bins are only for waste that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories. Seventy percent of the waste in Germany is recycled every year, whereas the U.S. only manages to recycle 28%.
One of the biggest differences between the systems in Germany and the U.S. is that it starts with the manufacturers. It is their responsibility to minimize the amount of waste that is created, recycle any unavoidable waste or convert it into energy, and dispose of waste that cannot be recycled without causing environmental harm. In contrast to the “polluter pays” principle, the U.S. uses the “consumer pays” principle, which requires taxpayer funding for waste management. Since businesses in Germany bear the financial burden, controlling waste and recycling becomes a greater priority.
To make it easier for companies to recover their packaging after it is discarded, they can become members of a non-profit group called Duales System Deutchland, or Dual Systems Germany (DSD). The companies pay a membership fee to put the Grüne Punkt, or Green Dot, trademark on their products. The trademark shows that the company is a member of the DSD and is committed to Germany’s recycling laws. Recycling companies will pick up any recycled packaging that displays the symbol.
The citizens are also part of the success of the system because they take the time to separate their recyclable waste. There are no laws requiring them to organize their waste, but many Germans feel strongly about recycling or have simply developed the habit. Plastic grocery shopping bags are rarely used, as people are in the habit of bringing their own rather than paying for a disposable bag at the counter. As in the US, citizens pay bottle deposits that give them the incentive to return their bottles.
Once the trash is organized in their respective bins, much of it is taken to sorting plants where anything that can be reused is recycled. Anything that cannot is incinerated by environmentally conscientious methods or given a mechanical-biological treatment before being put into a landfill. There were 50,000 landfills in Germany in the 1970s, but that number has been reduced to just 200. Only 1% of Germany’s waste ended up in a landfill in 2006, while US put 55% of its waste into landfills.
Germany’s eventual goal is to become 100% sustainable and eliminate landfill waste entirely by 2020. It may seem like a lofty goal, but the cooperation between German citizens and businesses has already put them ahead of the rest of the world.
The U.S. has made a progress, but could learn a lot from the German recycling system. There was only one roadside program in the U.S. twenty years ago, but by 1998 there were 9,000 roadside programs, 12,000 recyclable drop-off centers, and 480 materials recovery plants. Recycling and composting kept 64 million tons of material out of landfills and incinerators in 1999. The amount of recycling depends on the region. New York and Virginia recycle more than 40% of their waste, but Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana recycle less than 9%.
People in the U.S. can also take an initiative with their recycling. Return bottles and cans to the supermarkets and return plastic bags to the receptacles at the front of stores. Boxes to collect used batteries and cell phones are cropping up in many public places. To find recycling centers near you, visit Earth911.com.
You can even get some use out of biological waste by composting bits of produce, tea bags, eggshells, and newspaper. The resulting compost will make your plants strong and healthy.
Consider that someone else may be able to find a use for things you may otherwise throw away. Bring unwanted clothing to consignment shops and Salvation Army drop boxes and know that someone else will get some use out of them. Furnish a college student’s apartment and put your old furniture and outdated TV sets on Craigslist.