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Current state of waste management in Germany

Following the Second World War, along with rising prosperity, the amount and quality of waste also changed. Waste disposal was characterised by substantial deficits as regards the treatment capacity and the quality of the treatment plants. The few plants that were in existence did not adhere to the necessary standards as regards their technology, hygiene and environmental protection. The waste treatment plants – as far as they were even in existence – caused substantial environmental damage as well as displeasure and opposition amongst citizens. Waste incineration plants were equipped with inadequate waste gas treatment facilities; in composting plants composts of low quality were produced – incidentally along with a substantial smell nuisance; landfill sites had hardly any base or surface liner, landfill gas and leachates were only captured and treated in exceptional cases. Towards the end of the sixties of the twentieth century, the legislative powers were moved – partly due to the obvious shortcomings in waste treatment – to put into action a number of environmental laws, e.g. the Waste Disposal Act (Abfallbeseitigungsgesetz), the Pollution Act (Immissionsschutzgesetz) and the Federal Water Act (Wasserhaushaltsgesetz). These legal standards were complemented and concretised by various regulations. Following this, more laws were passed that have to be adhered to in the planning and implementation of waste disposal, e.g. the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (Gesetz über die Umweltverträglichkeitsprüfung), the Federal Soil Protection Act (Bundesbodenschutzgesetz) and the Federal Nature Conservation Act (Bundesnaturschutzgesetz). Today Germany has an adequate treatment capacity for the recovery and disposal of waste (see table below).
The emission limits comply with the targets of the European Union and the applicable regulations at the very least. Often, as in the case of waste incineration plants for example, the values fall below the set limits by at least ten per cent.
Waste treatment plants in Germany:
Waste volume and municipal competence
Municipal waste, for which those in charge of public waste management, in other words the municipalities, are mainly responsible, only amounts to a small share of the total waste volume, i.e. 350 millions tonnes per year in Germany. The majority of the waste volume is being disposed of (and mostly recovered) by the industry itself, i.e. privately. Municipal waste amounts to around forty million tonnes per year; that is around twelve per cent of the total waste volume. The municipalities – public waste management authorities – have the primary responsibility for a good reason. They handle this task themselves or delegate it after public tender, whilst keeping full responsibility in the process, to private companies or companies in a public-private-partnership. With this allocation of tasks a high standard of waste management was and is being reached in Germany.
The management of municipal waste is an essential part of the public interest. Thanks to the competence of the public waste management authorities the management of municipal waste in Germany – also compared internationally – is at a high technical and organisational standard, which takes account of hygienic, ecological and social aspects whilst also remaining affordable for the citizens. The table above shows an overview of the waste treatment plants in Germany and gives an impression of the standard of waste management.
Packaging waste was removed from the responsibility of the public waste management authorities by way of the Packaging Ordinance of 1991 (Verpackungsverordnung), at a time of a perceived waste crisis. As a consequence, responsibility was moved to the dual system (Duales System Deutschland), which instructs mainly private but also public companies with operative tasks.
Amendments through the Closed Substance Cycle Act and remaining deficits
Below three aspects of the waste law will be discussed: the classification of the treatment plants for the light fractions into the waste hierarchy, the waste term and the unsuccessful implementation of the Packaging Ordinance on the basis of the Closed Substance Cycle Act.
Position of the treatment plants for the light fraction in the waste hierarchy
Instead of the former three-step waste hierarchy § 6 I of the Closed Substance Cycle Act stipulates the ranking order of waste management. It now introduces a five-step hierarchy as a guideline for waste management:
  • Prevention, 
  • Preparing for reuse, 
  • Recycling, 
  • Other recovery, e.g. energy recovery and filling of excavations, 
  • Disposal.
This differentiated priority order in the recovery process is a new concept. Preparing for reuse, Recycling and other recovery, e.g. energy recovery and filling of excavations, have their own definitions. Energy recovery, i.e. waste incineration, therefore has a lower status than recycling. Through the backdoor however – calorific value of 11.000 kJ/kg – energy recovery can become equal to recycling.
Unlike preparing for reuse, recycling means intensive recovery methods, through which waste can be lead towards its original or a new purpose following treatment. Recycling solely constitutes material and raw material use, not a recovery method, through which waste is processed for use as fuel – energy recovery – or for use as backfill material – backfilling. The plants for the production of solid recovered fuels fall under the fourth hierarchy step. This leads to problems during the classification of sorting facilities, when aside from the fractions for recycling solid recovered fuels are produced as well; the situation will become even more problematic if there is mainly production of materials, that are destined for use as fuel. About two thirds of the input for solid recovered fuels are dealt with by treatment plants for the processing of light fraction packaging. The question whether those treatment plants are not to be classified as more legally compliant than plants for other recovery – energy recovery – is justified. A legal quota regulation could lead to more legal certainty.
In practice deviations from the priority order are possible under defined technical, ecological and economical aspects. The measure that best ensures the protection of humans and the environment during the production and management of waste, in line with the precaution and sustainability principle, is to be given preference.
Demand for reform of the Packaging Ordinance
In 1991, on the basis of the Waste Management Act, the Packaging Ordinance was enacted, which contained the legal basis for the dual system of packaging waste. This construct contains a number of organisational and economical deficits and is not acceptable in its current format. A few numbers for information purposes: the treatment of residual waste in incineration plants costs between 50 and 200 EUR per tonne; the disposal of light packaging materials from the yellow system – yellow bags and containers – costs around 400 EUR per tonne, which is made up of around 250 EUR per tonne for the collection and around 150 EUR per tonne for the sorting. The actual total cost for the dual system for the citizen is not even covered by this yet. Double the amount, namely around 800 EUR per tonne, has to be added to the disposal costs to cover unknown system costs/Overhead. However, these are only the system costs of the system operators, not the total amounts of all those involved. Further transaction costs accrue with the producers of packaging, in trade and in public administration. This economical and ecological nonsense is financed – not including the non-spreadable transaction costs – through three sources by the citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany, without them being able to notice it as such.
First and foremost source of finance for the dual system: each and every bit of packaging that enters the market and is bought by a consumer carries a small licensing fee of a few cents. The proportion coming from this is estimated to be around 10 EUR per citizen per year. This sum is the main source of financing for the organisational and technical efforts, the logistics, the processing of the packaging materials and the marketing of the recovered products.
It is openly propagated that it would be a shame to incinerate the packaging materials and that they should be brought back into the substance cycle – i.e. recycled – via the dual system. In reality though, this waste is not being recycled quantitatively in the way that is being propagated. Rather about two thirds of the light packaging materials are confectioned into substitute fuels that according to the law, constitute waste and are mainly incinerated in industrial power plants. These power plants are technically speaking modified incineration plants. The main difference to the waste incineration plants, which are mainly geared towards the treatment of waste, is in their functional specification. In industrial power plants, which serve as a provider of electrical power and heating, waste is a substitute fuel for the regular fuels.
Only about a third of the total volume of light packaging material is materially used, however mainly not in high-quality products; plastic waste for example is made into downpipes, ground-thresholds, plant pots etc. Only a small part is made into high-quality plastic granules, separated by type and produced with high technical effort. The quality of scrap parts from sorting facilities is much lower than the scrap parts from waste incineration plants, due to the foreign particles attached to the scrap – mainly plastics and paper.
The claim that it would be a shame to incinerate packaging materials from the yellow system and that they are to be recycled – materially used – is therefore wrong, because the majority of light packaging materials against the word of the official propaganda – a shame to incinerate – is actually being incinerated. The waste is merely lead towards a recycling system with great effort, but not even in its majority recycled.
The official data about the waste management routes (see table below) raise the impression that the data on recycling mean, that the shown amounts or proportions of, for example, municipal waste were recycled. This impression is wrong. The statistical data merely mean, that the stated proportion is being lead towards a recycling plant; it does not conclusively tell us about the amounts actually recycled.
Municipal waste in Germany - volumes and waste management routes 2010:
With the wrong justification that what is being done here is not incineration but rather recycling, light packaging materials are withdrawn from the municipal systems of waste management, without any benefit for the citizens or the protection of the environment and our natural resources.
Secondly, there are additional costs for the citizens due to the underutilisation of the existing high-quality treatment plants for residual waste: the capacities of Germany’s technically well equipped waste incineration plants are not being used to their full extent. Because the largest proportion of costs in waste incineration are fixed costs, an underutilisation leads to a rise in the specific waste treatment costs. The existing and not fully utilised waste incineration plants and the existing industrial power plants can take in the light packaging material at low cost and without the need for pre-treatment. Waste incineration plants comply with the high economical and ecological demands, thanks to increased energy efficiency and availability and excellent waste gas treatment systems in recent years. Waste incineration plants produce electrical power and remote heating or cooling. In addition, the ash/slag from waste incineration plants is used for the production of building material as well as iron and non-iron metal scraps; these are of higher quality than scraps from the processing of light packaging material. In recent times, many efforts are being made to also recover metals from emission control dusts. If this succeeds, waste incineration plants can be developed into ideal recycling plants, that would be way ahead of many mechanical systems – including the sorting facilities for light packaging.
Third aspect: The employees working in the sorting facilities of the dual system only receive minimum wages in many cases. Generally this does not suffice for a family to make a living. If the employee then has to claim additional public benefits, the taxpayer is once again indirectly paying up for the disposal of light packaging. In comparison, the employees of municipal companies are paid under a tariff that adequately covers the costs of living.
Conclusion: If the responsibility for the disposal of light packaging was handed back to the municipalities and the recovery itself was to be carried out organisationally and using techniques that were selected under ecological and economical conditions, the whole system can be made more cost effective and environmentally friendly, whilst keeping up payment under the current public law tariff. Financial regulation that takes account of product responsibility would however have to be introduced.
Due to the reasons presented herein in short format, it would be more effective to bring the responsibility for the disposal of light packaging back to the municipalities and to treat it together with residual waste where a higher-quality use through other processes is not possible.
Bringing the disposal of packaging back into the municipalities would bring substantial technical, economical, ecological and social advantages. The administrative and logistical effort could be reduced considerably. The way of treatment of packaging waste would not necessarily have to be changed. It would be the municipalities’ responsibility to decide on the best way of use.
Both the municipalities and the private waste management companies claim the running of the recyclables bin system. The federal government seems to rely on a concept of competition as an effective way of cost-reduction and the building of efficient structures. From the current perspective, this seems like an illusion, i.a. because after all it is about a business transaction for both sides, and there are plant capacities that are not put to full use that can be used better with the volumes coming from the recyclables bin. An assessment of the impact on processing techniques and product quality seems to be more purposeful right now. Only then there can be a decision about the optimal method with regard to economy efficiency and the protection of the environment and resources.


  • (1) Baum, H.-G.: Zur Rationalität staatlicher Eingriffe im Abfallsektor - dargestellt am Beispiel der Verpackungsverordnung (VerpackungsV). In: Müll und Abfall (2012), Nr. 7, S. 366-372.
  • (2) Rüth, E.: Verzichtbar. In: Recyclingmagazin (2012), Nr. 14, S. 12-15.
  • (3) Schlitte, F.; Schulze, s.; Straubhaar, t.: Liberalisierungspotentiale bei der Entsorgung gebrauchter Verpackungen aus Papier, Pappe und Karton. Gutachten des Hamburgischen Weltwirtschaftsinstituts (HWWI).

Created by Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Dr. h. c. Karl J. Thomé-Kozmiensky (vivis Consult GmbH), (2012-10-21), last modified by (2014-12-10)


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