INTERNATIONAL: Germany Struggles To Reduce Its Solid Waste

As Germany continues its quest to reduce waste, the country has made certain advancements while also encountering problems.

Last year, German residents used an average of 145 kg of packaging per person. Nationwide, recycling rates varied from 14 to 66 percent, depending on the material (see chart).

Stores, shops and supermarkets frequented by native Germans have not capitulated to the lure of potential profits from catering to customer convenience. Sacks typically are not provided unless the customer has come without a basket, net or bag from home. There is often a nominal charge for a small plastic sack. In grocery stores, many brands of mineral water are still offered in refillable glass bottles, but a customer can wait several minutes to get a receipt for the bottles returned. To cut down on the amount of plastic waste, some brands of yogurt and cottage cheese are available in glass containers resembling pint-sized mayonnaise jars. Customers weigh their own fruits and vegetables, receiving a stamped sticker for the cashier; small paper bags are available for produce rather than plastic bags. Dairy shops encourage the return of egg cartons with each purchase.

Some drugstores have plastic tanks for customers to pump several different generic cleaning agents, such as vinegar, all-purpose cleanser, window cleaner, dish washing liquid, cold-water wash and all-temperature laundry detergent, into a standard-size re-fillable dispenser. Bar soap is marketed in a simple wrapper or box without aluminum foil; toothpaste tubes are not boxed; washing detergent can be purchased in kraft bags for repeatedly refilling the boxes originally purchased; plastic scoops are sold only with the boxed detergent; and even hairdressers are introducing hair-care products in refillable containers.

For over a decade, an interdisciplinary group in Berlin called the Institute for Ecological Recycling (IfoR) has been developing innovative concepts for waste minimization. The institute's projects include consulting for communities, businesses and institutions.

IfoR has implemented practical solutions for the annual Berlin marathon, with 25,000 participants and 1 million spectators; a high-rise apartment complex that is plagued by illegal dumping and resident indifference to waste issues; cafeterias with mounting volumes of packaging waste; and for a city in former East Germany, where household waste increased after Germany's reunification and loss of the established SERO recycling system.

The city of Berlin is initiating a massive campaign for waste avoidance. The motto is "forward for Berlin - united against trash." According to the Tagespiegel newspaper, the goal is to reduce garbage by 50 percent by enlisting the participation of all residents. A forum of representatives from government, industry, business and environmental associations is forging strategies for waste prevention and recycling. Ideas have also been solicited from all citizens. Cash prizes for winners of the competition will total DM50,000 (approximately $29,225).

Berlin households are urged to avoid unnecessary packaging, to use the deposit system instead of throwaway bottles and to only purchase cleaners and cosmetics that are in returnable containers. Residents have access to a telephone hotline and backyard composters are offered advice at special stations. Shops and public offices are expected to do their part to cut waste as well.

Still, the newspaper Die Welt reports that environmentalist groups view the city's packaging waste recycling as on the verge of collapse and have given Berlin the lowest grades of all German states in waste prevention. While transport and intermediate packaging has been reduced, the Green Dot, which adorns 80 percent of all packages sold, has missed its mark in curbing consumer packaging, the groups claim. A mere 15 percent of the bi-metal and aluminum is reportedly being recovered in Berlin, and only 6 percent of that amount is actually recycled.

The city's previous insular location deep inside East Germany encouraged one-way packaging. Since Germany's reunification, however, shipping to Berlin is no longer a problem and returnable packaging is feasible. Recommendations for change include a decrease in the variety of packaging materials, the banning of PVC packaging and uniform multiple-use containers of standard sizes for as many as 50 different product types.