The Brutal Reality Of Being The World's 'Best' Recycler

In Germany, strict recycling laws are widely praised. But success masks a dark truth.

BERLIN ― Sandra Dudler is a passionate recycler. Like many Germans, she carefully follows the country’s strict trash-disposal rules, which involve separating items into different bold-colored bins. “I’m very serious about putting my stuff in the right bins,” said Dudler, the creative director of a media company. She even chastises friends for buying items wrapped in too much plastic.

Recycling is brewed into the culture here, and Germany’s commitment to the practice is a source of pride for some. But as the world awakens to how broken recycling systems have become, people like Dudler are grappling with uncomfortable truths.

Until recently, Germany enjoyed a reputation as the world’s recycling leader. That status lost some of its shine last month when researchers published a surprising report that found a staggering amount of the country’s recyclables don’t actually end up where people think. Instead, most of it is incinerated in Germany or shipped abroad to poorer countries, where it’s sometimes dumped or burned illegally.

Dudler said she was stunned to learn that all this plastic doesn’t get turned into new products.

“I feel very disillusioned,” she admitted. “Why am I separating my trash if isn’t being taken care of in the end?”

Germans are required by law to sort their household waste into specific categories, each with their own receptacles. In Berlin, where Dudler lives, homes and apartment buildings have yellow bins for packaging, plastic and metals; blue bins for paper and cardboard; brown bins for compostable waste and gray bins for other trash. Each neighborhood has large, centrally located containers for glass bottles.

Yellow recycling bins, for packaging, plastic and metal, await collection.
Yellow recycling bins, for packaging, plastic and metal, await collection.
ullstein bild via Getty Images

It’s partly a deep commitment to the environment that drives folks like Dudler to recycle. There are also penalties for noncompliance: at worst, a fine of up to 2,500 euros ($2,800); at best, a scolding from your building’s superintendent.

A landmark report in 2017 named Germany the world’s best recycler, compared with 25 other rich nations. Germans recycle 66% of their trash, according to the researchers, who compiled their data from official sources and adjusted the numbers to account for different countries’ methods of measuring. The U.S. was 25th on the list, with Americans recycling just under 35% of their trash. The report did not mention what happens to the trash after it’s collected for recycling.

The June report, which used data from the plastics industry, paints a less optimistic picture. Only 15.6% of post-consumer plastic waste actually gets made into new plastic products, according to the findings, released by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and environmental organization BUND. More than 60% of all plastic waste in Germany is burned and just 38% is recycled, the report also said.

It’s worth noting that the German government counts items as “recycled” if they have been exported for that purpose. (So does the U.S.) However, the government doesn’t track these items once they cross the border.

Germany is the No. 3 exporter of recycling and trash in the world, after the United States and Japan, according to the Böll/BUND report. Shipping plastic waste abroad can cost less than disposing of it properly at home.

For a long time, China had been the main destination for much of the world’s exported trash: The country processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals in 2016. But since China stopped importing plastic garbage in January 2018, countries have been scrambling to find new destinations for their detritus.

Now much of that trash is flowing to Southeast Asian countries. Once there, unrecyclable imports often end up abandoned in nature or burned illegally, which releases toxic chemicals into the air.

Earlier this year, German media started reporting that huge amounts of plastic packaging were being dumped in Malaysia. Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines also saw plastic imports spike from wealthy nations, including Germany and the U.S.

Mountains of plastic waste dumped outside an illegal recycling facility in Malaysia.
Mountains of plastic waste dumped outside an illegal recycling facility in Malaysia.
Joshua Paul for HuffPost

Germans reacted with shock at these reports.

“I was out of my mind,” Dudler said.

In light of all this, Viola Wohlgemuth of Greenpeace said that Germany’s reputation as a world champion recycler is “ridiculous.” Germans might feel good about the fact that they’re separating their trash for recycling, but they don’t know what happens after those items get carted away, Wohlgemuth said.

Millions of tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans each year, killing marine wildlife and polluting the food chain. Most of this garbage spills out from a handful of rivers in Southeast Asia, the very region where so much of the world sends its plastic trash. These developing nations are struggling to manage their own local trash and are fed up with the influx of garbage from wealthy countries.

This spring, Malaysia started shipping containers full of refuse back to Germany, the U.S., France and Australia. The containers held a mix of trash, recyclables and hazardous materials that violated import standards, Malaysian officials said.

Germans are starting to demand change, as well. A study commissioned by the Böll Foundation found that 92% want to ban plastic waste exports to countries that lack adequate disposal and processing facilities or environmental oversight.

The obvious solution is to make fewer plastic products to begin with, said Rolf Buschmann of BUND. Since the introduction of plastics in the mid-20th century, humans have created 8.3 billion tons of the stuff — nearly half of it made in the last two decades.

“We’re still producing too much,” Buschmann said.

Plastic makers should be held responsible, perhaps financially, if their packaging is found on beaches or otherwise disposed of improperly, Buschmann added.

The European Union’s new rules banning single-use plastics, such as food packaging, straws and coffee cups, won’t come into effect until 2021. In the meantime, to encourage recycling and reusable items, the German government started requiring all manufacturers to register their packaging as of Jan. 1 or face fines of up to 200,000 euros or a ban on sales in Germany. Previous initiatives to reduce waste had been voluntary for businesses.

Wohlgemuth of Greenpeace believes Germany’s government should take the dramatic step of banning any nonrecyclable products. “If we aren’t able to [recycle] it in Germany, we shouldn’t produce it,” she said.

Dudler says she’s going to keep up her meticulous recycling habit, even though she now knows it won’t all be turned into new products.

“A country like Germany has to come up with clever solutions,” Dudler told HuffPost. If that means plastic products and trash pickup become more expensive, she’s ready to make that tradeoff.

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