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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Germany Recycles - Or Does It?

Air Date: Week of

Alexa Dvorsen reports from Bonn on Germany's Green Dot recycling program. Although the much-admired German recycling campaign is being used as a model for other countries to follow, recent reports of large-scale dumping of Green Dot products in developing countries leads some to question the integrity of the program.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

We've all gone to the store to buy a simple item -- say a roll of film -- and come back with packaging that weighs almost as much as the item itself, it seems. We bring it home in a paper or plastic bag, then take off the plastic wrap around the cardboard box, then rip open the box itself, then inside the box we find a plastic can, which we unscrew to get to the film. The bag, the wrap, the box and the can all go into the trash. What if, instead, all that packaging was recycled? Well, in Germany, they are trying just that. By law, the majority of packaging must be recyclable. And now a label known as the "green dot" appears on a multitude of consumer items. It's supposed to ensure the package is recycled, but as Alexa Dvorson reports from Bonn, some of this packaging is showing up in dumps overseas, and some Germans are wondering if the green dot is really just a green dupe.

(Supermarket sound)

DVORSON: At thousands of German grocery stores like this one, you can't walk down an aisle without glimpsing the ubiquitous "green dot" logo. By the time you reach the checkout line, practically everything in your shopping cart, from milk cartons to liquid whiteout, has the green dot trademark: a sort of yin-yang circle of adjoining arrows. In participating cities, consumers leave the empty packaging in specially marked disposal bins for collection and recycling. The agency issuing the green dot, the Duales System Deutschland, or DSD, says nearly all German communities take part in green dot paper and glass collection, and about half also collect plastic and laminated packaging. The Duales System spokeswoman, Ines Siegler, says the green dot has a dual benefit. It helps meet the German requirement that 60 percent of all packaging be recycled, and unlike the American system, the green dot motivates manufacturers to use less wrapping material by making them pay for recycling it.

SIEGLER: Now industry has to confront this problem -- what to do with this product, what to do with the materials. Now industry has to recycle packaging -- that means additional costs for recycling, it's actually saving raw materials, that means less waste to be landfilled or incinerated.

(Sound of waste processing plant)

DVORSON: The system works like this. Industries pay a licensing fee to DSD to put the green dot symbol on their products. The fee is on a sliding scale -- the more environmentally friendly the packaging, the less there is to recycle; hence the cheaper the charge. With this money, the DSD brings trash haulers to collect the discarded green dot packaging and bring it to processing plants like this one in Hamburg, where workers sort paper, scrap metal and plastic in preparation for recycling. Holger Meinke is the plant's managing assistant.

MEINKE: Here in Hamburg, we do about 6 thousand tons of waste paper altogether per month. We sort out the different kinds of recycling materials, we bale it and then we send it to the paper factory, for example, or to a factory where we granulate it there and and then it's back into the new production.

DVORSON: But Germans are diligent recyclers, and the collection program has been such a success, that the market is flooded with recyclable waste. That's why 60 percent of the waste paper at Holger Meinke's plant will be loaded onto container ships and exported to the Far East.

MEINKE: We do export as well, yeah, like waste paper, we export to Indonesia, Thailand, Holland, you know, European market, but lately, because we can't sell it in Europe, we have to go to Thailand and Indonesia.

(Sound of TV program in German)

DVORSON: It's in the export of recyclable waste that the green dot's mission gets murky. An investigative television program on Germany's main channel recently ran a damning documentary about one case of waste export that ran amok. "Your expectation that the green dot stands for environmental protection is partly false," the show host says on camera. And with that, the program showed footage from a Greenpeace investigator who discovered tons of rotting, unsorted, unrecycled German waste in the Indonesian capital, Djarkarta.

(TV sound: " Überall, grüne Punkte . . ." fade under)

DVORSON: "Everywhere, the green dot label," the reporter says, as shots of the unmistakable logo fill the screen. Since the 2,000 tons of German garbage found in Djarkarta could not be reused, says Greenpeace spokesman Ingo Bockerman, this shipment was against the law.

BOCKERMAN: Diese Sachen sind überhaput nicht recyclebar . . . (fade under)

DVORSON: "This stuff isn't recyclable at all; that's why it was exported in the first place," says Bockerman, and he accused the Duales System of secret trash dumping around the world. For days after the program aired, the press echoed with scathing commentaries condemning the green dot as a green dupe. But the DSD says the charge is unfair. Spokeswoman Ines Siegler says most of the trash shown in the TV program was industrial, not household waste, and that the garbage with the green dot logo must have come from a municipality not participating in the collection program. But Siegler admits the green dot system isn't completely foolproof.

SIEGLER: It would be very naive to say there's not the danger that any illegality from a local waste management company would not be committed. But it is our task to control and to put a stop if any of this happens.

(Harbor sounds)

DVORSON: But despite the furor, ships loaded with green dot waste export continue to sail for the Far East and elsewhere from this harbor in Hamburg. And the exporters defend the practice as wholly legitimate. They point out that waste shipments must be approved by government ministries in Germany and the receiving country. And above all, Germany's Federal inspection agency must certify that the waste can be recycled safely after reaching its destination. But Martina Krause, a campaigner at the German Association for Protection of the Environment, says this approval process is practically a farce.

KRAUSE: That's written on paper but it doesn't work in reality. And that's a real scandal. And even if it would be recycled, I think it doesn't make any sense at all to get the paper or the plastic mountains in the Third World to recycle it there. They don't have packaging at all, or they have other, more environmentally friendly packaging, so why should they go on the plastic trip too?

DVORSON: Martina Krause says the DSD and its green dot are missing the point. Better, she says, to promote more refillable packaging, and push for a ban on materials that are too costly to recycle.

KRAUSE: Everyone talks about the possibility of recycling packaging materials, but not one talks about the question, whether it makes ecological sense. And that's a point that DSD ignores. We aren't against recycling at all. But we stress the point that recycling is not always an ecological solution. The main priority must be on the prevention of waste production.

DVORSON: But according to DSD, the amount of packaging material made of plastic has already dropped significantly and should continue to fall further. And the Duales System says by 1997, Germany should be able to recycle all green dot plastic here, without having to export it. On the other hand, as more and more cities participate in the program, the more difficult it may prove to keep the green dot scandal-free. Yet despite the recent bad press, the green dot concept is catching on. Belgium and Austria plan similar programs, and the European Community is using Germany's green dot market incentives as a partial model for an EC-wide recycling law, to be voted on later this year. For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Bonn.



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