“We are relying on Methods, which are no longer contemporary“

A plea for a restart of the European recycling economy by Dr. Heribert Gisch, former managing director of the waste disposal association Saar (EVS).

It has been a story of success so far: The first initiatives to reform waste management began in the late 1980s and since then it has changed fundamentally, specifically in Middle and Northern Europe. The outstanding result of this development is the fact that the disposal of waste has predominantly come to an end. The leading role of the mid-European states regarding waste management has now become the blueprint for the European waste strategy. But is this strategy really target-aimed and is it possible to transfer this strategy to eastern European countries, where waste economical concepts are still at the very beginning and where 80 percent of waste is still deposited? Is it possible to realize a circular economy in all EU states equally? As is generally known, the European Waste Framework Directive is characterized by the definition of binding targets and their significance (avoidance, reuse, recycling, utilization, disposal), but it is not characterized by methods and techniques for the implementation. For financial reasons this framework encourages creativity, diversity and flexibility regarding the configuration of national and regional waste management schemes.

The EU administration is well-advised to abstain. The administration should rather examine whether and to which extent and at what level of quality the strategic objectives can be implemented in a national and regional context. The EU administration’s current focusing on the household-related separate collection with the various collection systems completely ignores the specific starting situation and the basic conditions in which the today’s system in Germany with division of tasks between private and public economy has been developed. A household-related separate collection takes years, if not tens of years, to be established on an overall basis due to a fundamental change in the population’s behavior.

A significant example of the partially persistent acceptance problems in Germany is the separate collection of organic waste, which was implemented nationwide as recently as January the 1st 2015. But the resistance is still emerging. Is it possible that such a construction process can set a pattern throughout Europe? If such problems already occur in Middle Europe, where the population’s mindset is positive towards separate collection, major problems should be expected in other European countries and regions with completely different mindsets. Therefore, there are reasonable doubts, as to whether we have the time for such a construction and development process in countries like Eastern, Middle Eastern and South Eastern Europe, which are still developing their waste management – notwithstanding the deadlines, which are arranged in the particular EU adhesion contracts. Furthermore, considering a population that is largely non-sensitive towards waste management coupled with rampant indifference shown by those who are politically responsible, there are doubts whether we can expect the stringency necessary to bring about a prompt change in attitude and mentality that would be required to implement the largely unpopular measures.

The same standards – is it fair?

Photo: Thomas R. / fotolia.com

Photo: Thomas R. / fotolia.com

The current position of the EU administration ignores the completely varied starting situations and economic parameters of the member countries – such as: whether a waste management concept is implemented in a densely or sparsely populated or if it is implemented in a structurally weak or strong region. Moreover, separate collection systems are cost-intensive. A key criterion will be the answer to the question, which charges are appropriate and enforceable for a low median household income. Therefore, is it fair that the EU demands the same standards of poor states that they demand of rich states? After all, the rich states did have the possibility to develop those standards under much better conditions.

Furthermore, the range of variation and the prioritization of national and regional waste management concepts are ignored as well. Thus the Lorrainian Multiflux-Concept indeed separates refuse into three different plastic bags (Recyclables, Biodéchets, Résiduels), fails however to further separate the Recyclables – paper from plastic and metal packaging. The focus of this system is a significant reduction in the high logistic costs involved in the cycle of collecting and emptying rubbish bins. Poland is a good example showing that a country does not necessarily have to correspond to the ideal goals of a recycling economy, but by increasingly focusing on garbage incineration and energetic incineration respectively, it fulfills the minimum requirement of the EU directive.

It is remarkable how and with which idealized and uncritical view the German separate collection is practiced: barely a word being said about the problems and disadvantages. However, also the drawbacks should also be acknowledged and assessed in order to envision the separate collection practice in its sober entirety. The truth is that separate collection results in high logistic costs and each additional separate collection of an additional waste fraction imply an increase in costs. The implementation of an additional recycling bin in Germany is highly debatable. Especially as soon as impact and costs are compared to each other. It is not difficult to imagine in which way these massive costs affect rural regions and thereby impact large sections of eastern middle Europe.

An exhausted system

It is also true to say that the system becomes more complex as well as accident-and-error-prone with every additional separate fraction. Many practitioners are absolutely aware of the littering problems on container collection points, which occur every day. Furthermore, it should be noted that the recycling rate of municipal solid waste stagnates. It seems that the limit is at 60 to 65 percent, which is difficult to overcome. The limit for organic waste is at 50 percent. Even fee incentives, awareness campaigns, etc. cannot increase this percentage. The system based on the willingness and ability of the population to actively participate in waste separation has obviously been exhausted, even under the most optimal conditions.

Another desirable increase of the success rate is unachievable with the existing system due to its complexity and expensiveness.

There is another related central problem of separate collection, which is largely disregarded: the problem of “misthrows” regarding packaging waste. In Germany, this is a permanent issue between private dual systems and disposal co-operations, which are regulated by public law. Disillusioning tendencies can be identified; even if only a few convincing and representative final figures are available:
■    The amount of “misthrows” regarding the yellow refuse bin/yellow bag (residual waste, organic waste etc.) is circa 50 percent average
■    The amount of “misthrows” of packaging waste respectively organic waste regarding the residual waste ton amounts to 40 and 50 percent
■    The amount of “misthrows” regarding organic waste and therefore regarding the green ton (packaging waste, residual waste) is circa 20 to 30 percent.
Those results can be subjected to variation depending on local parameters (level of charges, fee incentives, etc.) but this does not challenge the basic tendency. According to a survey of the Association of Municipal Companies (VKU), the stake of the material recycling of plastic amounts to solely 20 percent – an oath of manifestation.

What happens after “misthrows”? The amount of waste has to be post treated in industrial re-sorting and/or in combustion. Both options require considerable additional costs, which is hardly systematically recorded by anybody and therefore those costs are more or less “hidden” in the total account. Does it make sense to maintain such a system permanently respectively impose this system on everybody else? A separation system has been created with humungous effort, that in all honesty has proven itself to be inadequate requiring counter ‚repair‘ measures.

What would be more sustainable?

There is a central problem regarding household-related separate collection: We entrust the quality of household-related separate collection respectively the functioning of the total system to the population’s willingness and their ability respectively. Be it due to indignation and or ignorance; on the bottom line, separate collection has proven extremely unprofessional and non-sustainable. But if we are looking for higher professionalism of waste separation and thus an increase of the recycling rates, then the question arises, why do we not rely on industrial processes from the beginning. Meanwhile, the corresponding techniques are highly advanced: household mixed waste can be separated into comparable clean fractions, which are adapted for the material utilization – at much cheaper costs.

It must be more target-aimed and sustainable to set the priorities there instead of making circuits, which will prove themselves as less resilient in the long run and out of reach for European realities. Look carefully at our surroundings: Soon we will drive around with self-driving cars and robots are replacing more and more human beings in our industries. However, in the recycling industry, we are relying on methods, which are not contemporary anymore. It may be the case that the household-related separate collection has established itself in parts of (Middle)-Europe. Furthermore, it is going to be difficult to change this in the foreseeable future. But one thing is for sure: separate collection is not qualified as a future model.

Photo: pixabay

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