Why don't more companies recycle

Plastic wasteRecycling is often not worthwhile for companies

"Well, we are here in Erftstadt and have built one of the largest sorting systems for waste from the dual system here by Remondis - that is, yellow sack, yellow bin."

Michael Schneider from the Remondis waste disposal company walks to a meter-high mountain of rubbish. Two trucks are just bringing in used yoghurt pots, cleaning agent bottles and other packaging:

"Exactly, that's where the household rubbish is being dumped."

Eight companies are responsible for the yellow household bin

And that is not lacking. According to the Federal Environment Agency, a good 226 kilograms of packaging waste was generated per inhabitant in Germany in 2017. That would correspond to over 100 yoghurt cups per day and inhabitant. However, only half came from private households, the rest came from commerce, trade and industry.

Packaging with the "GrĂ¼ner Punkt" logo may be placed in the yellow bin or the yellow sack (dpa / Marcus Brandt)

What happens to the garbage from our yellow household bin is determined by a total of eight companies in Germany, the so-called dual systems. They get money from packaging manufacturers and then hire companies like Remondis to collect, sort and sell the rubbish as raw material. Michael Schneider:

"Essentially, this waste stream consists of various plastics and tinplate, the typical food cans, and tinplate, which in turn is the lids of the yogurt pots and so on."

A third of the waste is incinerated

The dual systems now have to "materially" recycle almost two thirds of this, i.e. use them again for new products. The remaining third, on the other hand, is still incinerated, for example in cement works. Far too much - criticizes Henning Wilts, who researches material cycles at the Wuppertal Institute:

"This then replaces the oil that we would need to fire. But what is burnt once can never be recycled again."

(dpa / Norbert Schmidt) Dispute over plastic disposal - lobbyist: Talk more about consumption, less about costs
Involving the plastic packaging industry in disposal costs does not contribute to waste avoidance, said the spokeswoman for the plastic packaging industry association, Mara Hancker, in the Dlf. The industry should be involved in the discussion, because they already have many ideas on how to avoid waste.

And that although plastics can actually be reused five to six times, says Wilts. In Germany, however, a lot of plastic packaging from the yellow sack has already been burned after a single use, confirms Schneider from Remondis. Among other things, because they are too laboriously produced:

"If, for example, you take cheese or sausage packaging, some of which are made of eight different plastics. No sorting system in the world can break that up."

New packaging is often cheaper

There is also another problem: Even if companies like Remondis sort the garbage neatly, it can sometimes be difficult for them to find buyers for it. Depending on the oil price, it is cheaper for companies to use new packaging than recycled, says Schneider:

"That means that the environmental aspect often does not play such a big role in the consideration of what I am going to use to make my new packaging again."

(Imago / Jochen Tack) Federal Environment Agency - "It is difficult to legally stipulate avoiding packaging"
According to the Federal Environment Agency, the amount of packaging waste in Germany is at an all-time high. Many trading houses and manufacturers are now paying attention to the recyclability of their packaging, said Gerhard Kotschik from the Federal Environment Agency in the Dlf. But that doesn't necessarily lead to less waste.

This leads to the fact that even valuable, single-variety rubbish bales are also burned. Scientist Henning Wilts, on the other hand, does not believe that the dual systems export a significant amount of garbage from the yellow sack abroad:

"The dual systems themselves say that a maximum of two percent of their waste was exported to Southeast Asia. And I think that has come back even further because the companies see how badly it is received by the public."

Clearer requirements for industry are necessary

Rather, Wilts assumes that the German garbage on Asian rubbish tips is mostly industrial waste - for example, faulty batches from manufacturers. This shows: Overall, more garbage is being recycled from the yellow bin than before. What is still missing are clearer guidelines for the industry, says Wilts. He gives an example:

"The law already says that whoever brings packaging onto the market that is difficult to recycle should pay a little more for it. And I think that's exactly the right idea, but unfortunately the law doesn't say how much he has to pay more for it now. "

Michael Schneider from Remondis, who has meanwhile finished his tour of the sorting plant, sees it similarly:

"So now we're out again and stand in front of the warehouse for the sorted plastics. From here, the bundled plastics are then transported by truck to the respective processing industry."

(picture alliance / Keystone / Jochen Zick) The problem of plastic waste - what solution is there?
The problem of plastic waste is currently being hotly debated. Our plastic consumption must decrease. The topic is not new - it is important to look for solutions and find alternatives. Usually it is experts, politicians and scientists who propose possible solutions.

To ensure that things run smoothly in the future, Schneider is demanding quotas for manufacturers that stipulate how much recycled material they must use in products. It is clear that this would definitely help his company.