How much plastic do we really recycle?

The BMU provides information on the subject of plastic recycling

The Federal Environment Ministry presented a 5-point plan for less plastic and more recycling at the end of November. We would not have done that if we believed that nothing could be improved. Of course there is a need for improvement - and we are addressing that. In the past few days there has been extensive reporting on the subject, which the German recycling system has declared to be "garbage". Some facts are mixed up or out of date. We would like to clarify that:

Claim: There is a lack of control and liability in the recycling system.

Our packaging law has brought significant improvements here since the beginning of the year: The law creates liability, control and transparency. Anyone who uses packaging and puts it on the market must pay into the dual system in order to finance and guarantee recycling. Manufacturers who do not register with the central office and who do not use their packaging in a dual system are not allowed to place their packaging on the market. Those who do not adhere to the rules can be warned, pay fines and - as a dual system - lose their approval. Recycling quotas are controllable, non-compliance will be punished, including fines. The partially criminal energy in the system will be significantly reduced by the introduction of the central office and other measures. However, it is also a fact that the German recycling industry has hundreds of small and medium-sized companies that mostly work correctly and in the interests of environmental protection and should not be pulled together with a few black sheep.

Claim: Far less is being recycled than always claimed.

A total of 14.4 million tons of plastic were processed in Germany in 2017, and 11.8 million tons were consumed. Since some of the products are exported or last a long time, such as wind turbines, only a good half is generated as waste in Germany, namely 6.15 million tons in 2017. About 46 percent of this was recycled (material recovery), just under 53 Percent were burned to generate energy.1 The recycling rate is therefore around 46 percent. In absolute numbers, 2.8 million tons of plastic were recycled. From this - after weight loss due to moisture, contamination or the sorting out of certain colors - 1.9 million tons of recyclate for the manufacture of new plastic products could be obtained in Germany. In relation to the amount of waste generated, this corresponds to around 30 percent. Of this, 1.76 million tons were used in Germany for the manufacture of new plastic products, the rest was exported).2 The recycling rate achieved for packaging is slightly higher. In 2016, more than 50 percent of plastic packaging was recycled.

The number of the Wuppertal Institute (5.6 percent) is not a recycling rate, but the rate of use of recyclate, which was obtained from post-consumer waste, i.e. mainly from waste from the yellow sack, in plastic production. Apparently, the amount of recycled material is being confused with the amount of recycled material used in production in Germany. We are of the opinion that the use of recycled materials in high-quality products must be increased significantly and we have also taken measures to achieve this. However, this does not mean that, for example, a PET bottle from Germany that is used abroad to manufacture a fleece pullover cannot be counted as recycled.

Two other factors are important to classify the 5.6 percent: On the one hand, it increases to 12.3 percent if you add the recyclates from plastic waste from production. On the other hand, it relates to plastic production and not to the waste that is actually available for recycling. It is therefore completely unsuitable for comparison with the recycling rate.

Claim: Garbage is exported and yet counts as recycled.

In principle, waste may only be exported for recycling and not for landfill, for example. In addition, the recipient must comply with European recycling standards. For waste from packaging that is counted towards the recycling quotas, proof of recycling must be provided - also abroad. Unfortunately, since the plastic (waste) market is globalized, fraud in recycling cannot be ruled out. Better controls are essential here. The new central office is better positioned for this than the previously responsible state authorities. No precise statistics are available on the volume of exports. For packaging waste from the yellow sack or the yellow bin it is known that the vast majority of it is recycled in Germany and the EU. China, for example, recently had a share of around two percent. According to international law, the principle of free trade applies to plastic waste as an economic asset, as long as there are no import restrictions. However, only single-type plastics and non-hazardous plastic waste or waste mixtures that cannot be easily recycled are considered economic goods.

Claim: The quota is difficult to understand and not very meaningful.

There has just been a change here as a result of the EU's circular economy package. So far, the EU member states have based their recycling quotas on so-called input calculations. This means that you count what goes from a sorting system to recycling. Not all of this is recycled, but some (dirt, contaminants) are burned. The calculation has now changed due to the new European requirements. According to the amended European Waste Framework Directive, output-oriented quotas will apply throughout the EU in the future, which have also been increased significantly. The European experts are currently working on the specification of this output-oriented approach.

Claim: The recycling rates are too low.

With the Packaging Act, we are increasing the quotas significantly. Since the beginning of the year they have been 58.5 percent, and from 2022 even 63 percent. So far they have been 36 percent. The increase will change a lot. It has already made significant investments in the industry. The challenge now is to establish a reliable market for recyclates in Europe so that the increased recycling rates actually lead to an improved circular economy.

Claim: Not enough recycled plastic is reused.

This is exactly where the Federal Environment Minister's recycling initiative comes in (Rezyclat = recycled plastic). We want to close cycles with this and ensure that as many plastics as possible actually stay in the cycle. Because the packaging law will have the effect that more recyclates will be available. It also aims to reward those who make packaging recyclable or who use recycled plastic. But overall, the demand for recyclates must grow. In some cases, there are significant concerns about using them due to suspected quality defects of the recyclates used to date. We want to reduce these concerns with everyone involved. In addition, we are also examining a requirement from the public sector for the proportion of recyclate in products that it purchases. We will initially approach the recycling initiative in dialogue, but we are also ready to comply with legal requirements if this should prove necessary. With regard to the directive on single-use plastic products, we recently reached an agreement at European level on the use of recycled materials for PET bottles, initially at 25 percent. We have to build on this.

Claim: There is still far too little emphasis on avoidance.

We're already working on that too. At the end of November 2018, the Federal Environment Minister presented a 5-point plan for less plastic and more recycling. We are counting on the effectiveness of the new packaging law and on additional measures. At the European level, we successfully negotiated a new directive in a hurry to tackle the ten product groups that are most commonly found on European beaches. The measures range from information and labeling to reduction targets and bans. At the national level, we demand concrete and measurable measures from trade and industry to rapidly reduce packaging waste.