Corona Plastic Boom: The Myth of German Recycling

Jens Blume is regularly plagued by doubts as to whether Germans have really figured out what the yellow sack is for. An integral part of the country’s recycling efforts, they are ostensibly for plastic, aluminum and the Tetra Pak cartons that are ubiquitous in the country. Every year, though, his employees at a sorting facility in Bassum, near Bremen, find all kinds of things that don’t belong. Last year, for example, they discovered a rocket-propelled grenade on the conveyor belt. On another occasion, tracer bullets exploded at the facility.

In recent months, however, Blume has been facing an additional challenge: The compound is in danger of drowning in plastic waste. On normal days, 380 tons of plastic waste arrive at the Bassum facility, which is then sorted by shaking belts and infrared scanners before being compressed into bales. But during the height of the coronavirus crisis, it has been almost twice as much. “The entire yard was full. We could no longer sort fast enough,” he says. It wasn’t just that people used their time in lockdown to clean out their basements – resulting in an uptick in scrap iron at the facility, and even an electric motor on one occasion. But the heaps of waste quickly became a mirror of the hygiene strategies being used to confront the pandemic: disposable gloves, carryout packaging and empty disinfectant bottles.

Coronavirus has helped plastic make a problematic comeback. Since March, over 7 percent more plastic waste than last year has been landing in the recycling bins of private households. Even if less garbage is being produced by the commercial sector, the total amount of plastic waste has risen, says the recycling company Der Grüne Punkt.

Indeed, the crisis has managed to do something that no PR company could ever manage: It has improved plastic’s image. While it was disdained not that long ago as being a major threat to the world’s oceans, many now see it as a helpful tool in protecting against coronavirus contamination. Even disposable cutlery, which has long been repudiated and will be illegal in the EU as of next year, is experiencing higher demand, according to Papstar, a major producer of disposable products. Because of their deleterious environmental effects, Papstar says, sales had “fallen through the floor,” but now, some producers are once again ramping up production.

Companies like Hellma, a subsidiary of the Südzucker Group, are also profiting from pandemic fears. The company sells such things as salt and sugar in paper sticks, or portions of honey in small plastic containers. All such products are once again en vogue, since shared dispensers are now seen as a possible source of contagion.

Recyclers should actually be pleased with the new plastic boom. Their facilities treat all the used-up shampoo bottles, yoghurt containers and everything else made from the oil-based polymers. Their machines shred, wash and sort the stuff into polystyrene, PET or polypropylene bales, which are then transformed into small pellets called recyclate, the raw material for items made out of recycled plastics, such as park benches or new PET bottles.

Zealous Waste Separators

This recycling economy is one of the more sustainable legacies of Helmut Kohl’s tenure as German chancellor. The 1991 Packaging Ordinance transformed waste into a raw material and the Germans into zealous waste separators.

Yet despite the fact that the country’s population has become extremely conscientious about waste sorting, far too little is actually recycled. The relatively high recycling quote of 50 percent hides the fact that in Germany, only very little of the recyclate thus produced is ever actually used. Of the 14 million tons of plastic produced in 2019, just 1.9 million tons came from recycled material. Almost half of that is from industry leftovers, meaning that just one million tons of packaging waste in Germany is reintroduced into the plastic life cycle. Just 7 percent. The vast majority of granulate is newly produced.

That is primarily a function of the low price of new plastic produced from oil, which has dropped even further as a result of corona. A ton of recycled PET granulate costs just over 900 euros, whereas newly produced granulate from oil costs just 680 euros. Furthermore, despite government insistence that environmental protection is a priority, the low price of new granulate is partially the result of government subsidies. The oil used to manufacture plastic is exempt from the mineral oil tax and from costs associated with the Renewable Energy Sources Act. For many packaging producers, environmentally friendly production is thus too expensive. Furthermore, they shy away from the grayish veneer that the use of recyclate can produce.

The Packaging Ordnance that has been in place since 2019 – one which Environment Minister Svenja Schulze praised for its far-reaching implications – is designed to improve the recycling quota. It requires producers to make packaging that is easier to recycle. The law also requires 58.5 percent of plastic waste from German households be reused.

The implementation of the law is the responsibility of companies belonging to the so-called Duales System, essentially a collection of recycling companies like the Grüne Punkt. Every company that puts packaging into circulation – from grocery store chains to online retailers – must license the amount of plastic used with a Duales System company and pay a fee. Duales System companies then use the money from that fee to collect recyclable waste and deliver it to a recycling facility.

“Lawmakers Have to Act”

But the circulation concept has a significant shortcoming. If recyclers are unable to sell plastic at competitive prices, it doesn’t really matter what percentage of plastic waste is separated for recycling.

Just a few weeks ago, Gunda Rachut, the head of the Central Agency Packaging Register, which keeps track of packaging producers, sounded the alarm, warning that legally mandated recycling quotas would not be met without sufficient use of recyclate. Because of the rock-bottom prices, “many producers ceased production over the course of several months,” says Rachut, whose agency is charged with monitoring compliance with the Packaging Ordnance. If industry doesn’t begin using significantly greater quantities of recycled material, she says, “then lawmakers have to act.”

Thomas Fischer expressed surprise at the sudden warning. An expert on plastic circulation with the German environmental NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe, he has been demanding stricter norms for some time. The Packaging Ordnance, he believes, is a “total mess” and far too lenient. He believes it was a mistake to place responsibility for environmentally friendly packaging in the hand of the companies belonging to the Duales System. “Their competition has thus far resulted in ruinous discounts for packaging producers. It allows for no leeway for rewarding environmentally friendly activity,” Fischer says. “Minimum use quotas for recyclate should have been mandated long ago,” he believes.

Michael Wiener, CEO of Grüne Punkt, agrees. His company also operates two recycling facilities. He says it is misleading to simply look at the amount of plastic waste that is turned into recyclate. It is the use of that recyclate that must be promoted, he says, while newly produced plastic granulate must be made more expensive. He says he doesn’t have a problem with the new European Commission plastic tax, which will enter into force in 2021 and will require European Union member states to send 80 cents to Brussels for every kilogram of plastic that isn’t recycled. It is, he believes, the only way to compete against the low price of oil. Still, he says, the revenues from that tax should be used for recycling research and development.

Switching to Paper

Thomas Fischer believes a plastic tax of up to 2 euros per kilogram makes sense. “Unnecessary plastic packaging must hit the producers where it hurts. Only then will they change course. Only then can the marketing department no longer demand glossy, multilayered materials that no sorting facility can deal with and which lands in the incinerator.”

If you ask around at companies about recycling, they like to talk about alliances that fight against the flood of plastic and from “ocean plastic,” new packaging that is allegedly produced from plastic collected on beaches. But they are less interested in talking about their own plastic usage. Henkel, the German chemical and consumer goods company, for example, used a whopping 453,000 tons of plastic for its products in 2017, though that number had dropped by 20 percent by 2019.

The use of recyclate at Henkel still appears to be a problem. The company claims, for example, that even “small impurities” would disrupt the production process of thin bags of laundry detergent. Henkel’s concerns center on printability of the packaging, temperature stability and impermeability, all of which can apparently only be guaranteed by newly produced plastics.

Is that really true? Frosta, which produced frozen foods and not washing powder, also performed a number of functionality tests – and then decided to switch entirely away from plastic, opting for paper packaging instead.

German discount supermarkets may ultimately be responsible for a bit more progress when it comes to plastic recycling, particularly the Schwarz Group, which owns brands like Lidl and Kaufland. Waste is seen by the company as a new key area of investment. In the last two years, the company has bought up two waste management companies, thus acquiring the ability to reprocess packaging waste itself. By 2025, it hopes to make the packaging used for its house brands maximally recyclable. Already, the company has asked its suppliers to reduce the weight of its packaging, to use at least 30 percent recyclate in its packaging or guarantee 80 percent recyclability.

Plastic Backup

It all sounds good in theory. De facto, however, the two recycling facilities operated by Schwarz, which otherwise produce 95,000 tons of recyclate per year, ceased production for several weeks during the height of the coronavirus lockdown.

The resulting plastic backup was felt throughout the country, including in the sorting facility in Bassum, where it is hard to miss. Because hardly anyone is picking up their sorted and baled plastic, they sit around for weeks at a time. The Tetra Pak bales have begun emitting the sweet smell of rot. “Lactic acid bacteria,” says facility head Blume. Because of high recent temperatures and the numerous insects, he has begun having his bales disinfected by exterminators.

At the plastic recycling company of APK near Leipzig, they discovered cockroaches in a plastic delivery. “We had to send the entire truckload back,” says CEO Klaus Wohnig. His company is also suffering from the low prices of newly produced granulate. And this despite the fact that his company can do more than many recyclers. A solvent-based procedure makes it possible for APK to break down multi-layer packaging and the company is also able to decolor plastics, resulting in particularly bright recyclate.

The degree to which quality has suffered at the overflowing waste sorting facilities can be seen by the example of a delivery of bales from Hamburg on August 11. According to freight documents, the bales contained foils of decent quality. In fact, though, Wohnig and his employees discovered all kinds of foreign objects when they began taking the bales apart, including bicycle inner tubes, Styrofoam and a vacuum cleaner nozzle. “The number of foreign objects is on the rise, to the degree that processing has become almost impossible,” he says.

APK receives around 100 euros from the Duales System for the difficult processing of such bales, which isn’t profitable. And recently, he says, a waste company sought to push him down to 90 euros, Wohnig says, noting that the load would otherwise be sent to Turkey. “Turkey seems to have become the new Malaysia,” says the APK CEO.

Malaysia became the savior for many countries drowning in mountains of plastic after China closed its borders to waste plastics in 2018. Germany, widely seen as a recycling leader, sent 130,000 tons of the stuff – more or less well sorted – to the country last year alone. Turkey, of course, is much closer. Sending waste plastic to such countries isn’t illegal, as long as the facilities there are certified appropriately.

A few weeks ago, though, the BBC reported that British waste that was supposed to be recycled in Turkey was actually buried or incinerated there. “Most companies here have import licenses, but they import far more than they can process,” says Nihan Temiz Ataş of Greenpeace Turkey. In July, the Environment Ministry in Ankara imposed a fine of half a million euros on eight such facilities and revoked their licenses. “A country that can’t even manage its own waste shouldn’t bring in even more,” says Ataş.

Gunda Rahut of the Central Agency Packaging Register confirms that there is a problem with questionable facilities and that reports have been compiled on the issue. But, she adds, the amount exported from German households remains relatively small.

Still, according to the Federal Statistical Office, Germany sent 64,000 tons of plastic waste to Turkey in 2019, more than three times as much as in 2017. For recycling.

Except that bales of plastic recently turned up on the side of the road in the city of Andana, as can be seen in video footage that residents sent Greenpeace in July. In the video, the labels of numerous German brands can be seen, including that of the cleaning products company Frosch – which prides itself on sustainability.

Icon: Der Spiegel

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