INTERNATIONAL: German Waste Disposal Evolves Under New Laws

Over the last two years, Germany has labored to revolutionize recycling, but controversy is mounting. The 1991 Packaging Law phased in recycling for all packaging materials, from cardboard boxes to yogurt cups. The producer was to shoulder the burden. In response, Ger-man industry and commerce created the "Duales System Deutsch- land" (DSD), which uses a Green Dot symbol on packaging to indicate that collection and recycling costs are included in the cost of the product.

The results of this novel system are mixed. Packaging reductions and innovations have been achiev-ed but citizen participation, which is voluntary, has been so enthusiastic that volumes collected are three to four times what was anticipated. For this landslide of packaging materials, the processing capacity proved to be inadequate (see figure). In many cases, recycling has a negative ecological balance; technology is not yet ad-vanced enough for large-scale applications; and markets remain underdeveloped.

Plastic is the most problematic material. The chemical industry is criticized for defaulting on its commitment to provide the necessary facilities to recycle the plastics it produces. Other problems include the export of ex-cess collected packaging, especially baled plastics, to dubious recyclers and charges that the Green Dot masquerades as an eco-label and promotes one-way packaging. Another concern is that the DSD, by driving smaller recycling companies out of business, is developing into a mo-nopoly.

According to Der Spiegel, consumers are being shortchanged. In addition to their municipal garbage fees, households now pay an estimated DM 200-500 ($120 to $300) per year in Green Dot licensing fees passed on to them by the manufacturers. On October 1, 1993, the fees will rise by as much as one-third depending on the packaging material and weight.

To remedy the situation, the private waste industry is working in-tensively to develop new facilities for plastics recycling. Also, new legislation has been passed and more is in the making.

The new Technical Directive Municipal Solid Waste, promulgated in June, signals what Federal Environmental Minister Klaus Topfer calls "the end of the classic landfill for municipal waste." By stipulating that wastes not recycled or composted be rendered inert prior to landfilling, the rule, in effect, mandates thermal pretreatment. Some 36 new combustion facilities are expected to be needed by the year 2005. Critics' concerns, reported in MullMagazin, include the use of cement kilns and power plants instead of modern facilities dedicated to waste combustion.

A law passed in May 1993 places the permitting of certain waste facilities under the existing emission protection law with the aim of streamlining the process. Environ-mentalists charge that this will exclude the public from participating. Rainer Cosson, an attorney with the BDE (Bundesverband der Deutschen Entsorgungswirtschaft), a leading national waste association, explains that these fears are unfounded, since public input is waived only on projects of lesser significance. Proposed combustion projects will continue to require public participation.

A new comprehensive solid waste law to replace the 1986 amendment is being hammered out in parliament. The draft would specify a hierarchy of prevention, material or energy recovery and landfilling. The basic principle behind the 1991 Packaging Law - the generator is responsible - would be ex-tended to all products. For example, the components of electrical appliances would be returned to their source, resulting in a circulating system. Such recyclable goods would be classified as secondary raw materials, thus redefining "waste" as the residue from which neither materials nor energy can be recovered and further reducing reliance on landfills.

As a European Community member, Germany is legally bound to enact national legislation to meet the objectives laid down in EC law. A directive to be formalized as Ger-man law grants citizens free ac-cess to environmental information. Also, an EC regulation to become effective this year sets up a system of voluntary environmental audits, despite the German delegation's reservations about laxness.

Waste management, according to Cosson, has to make ecological sense. Recycling at any cost cannot be the answer, and the suggested alternative of reliance on "zero packaging" together with a deposit and take-back system is naively simplistic. In a consumer society with growing production and prosperity, he says, the rising waste generation curve can be flattened somewhat but not turned downward.