Garbage in, garbage out: Mülltrennung and Eurotrash

March 2009 news item:

Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, has released the latest figures regarding the waste generation and recycling of household waste among the 27 member countries (EU27). In the EU27 in 2007, 42% of treated municipal waste was landfilled, 20% incinerated, 22% recycled and 17% composted. – The Member States with the highest recycling rates for municipal waste were Germany (46%), Belgium (39%), Sweden (37%), Estonia and Ireland (both 34%). Composting of municipal waste was most common in Austria (38%), Italy (33%), Luxembourg and the Netherlands (both 28%), and not done at all in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania. – Composting and recycling accounted for over 50% of municipal waste treated in Germany (64%), Belgium (62%), the Netherlands (60%) and Austria (59%).
– from eurostat (PDF)

red blue yellow green
Even public trash disposal in Germany
(here at a train station in 3 languages)
asks you to separate before you toss!

Photo © Hyde Flippo

Germany is extremely proud of its claim of being the world champion in recycling and trash separation (Mülltrennung). Germany leads the EU in the percentage of household waste it recycles or composts (64% versus 46% in the USA in 2007). Germans have been practicing and refining the fine art of trash separation ever since the introduction of the “Green Dot” Duales System in 1990. Besides their ABC’s, German children grow up learning about blue (paper, cardboard), yellow (packaging, plastic), green (glass), brown (biodegradable), and red/black/gray (all other waste) trash containers. (The colors may vary by locality, but are usually similar.) Batteries are never just tossed into the household trash, but dropped into the special battery disposal bin at the corner Drogerie. For most (but not all) plastic and glass bottles there is a deposit fee that the consumer can get back by returning the bottles. These so-called Pfandflaschen should not be put in the trash at all. Sperrmüll (large or bulky household junk) is picked up once or twice a year in most towns.

Corpus fuer alle Delecti
Corpus für alle Delicti – in Berlin
Photo © Hyde Flippo

Even Americans used to the typical U.S. municipal recycling program have no idea what real waste separation is until they find themselves living in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. Virtually every kitchen in Germany has not one, but three trash containers under the sink. In Germany, one never just throws anything away without first thinking about which container it should end up in. You can’t just absentmindedly dispose of a plastic wrapper or a paper envelope. They don’t go in the same bin! Where do I put these chicken bones? Where do the disposable diapers go? What about this green glass bottle or the broken mirror glass? (Not the same!) Some communities even put corks in their own disposal category!

As might be expected, surveys prove that even native Germans can be confused about which trash item goes in which bin. Reportedly, up to half of all garbage in Germany ends up in the wrong container! But despite that, according to the EPA (2007), only one percent of German trash ends up in a landfill versus 54 percent in the United States!

However, the German waste collection and recycling system has come under increasing criticism in recent years. The original purpose of the Grüner Punkt program was to establish a system that would pay for the recycling of product packaging labeled with the “green dot” logo. But the German Duales System has had its problems over the almost two decades of its existence. Critics have attacked Germany’s “dual system” for being too cumbersome, too wasteful, and too expensive. Proponents of a reformed German waste management system claim that technology and times have changed, and it is no longer necessary for people to do what machines can do more efficiently. A new pilot program in the city of Münster will test an automated system that will do all the trash separation and be much cheaper than the current system — so they say.

Moege der Muell mit mir sein
“May the trash be with me.” (Hamburg)
Photo © Andrea Goldmann

But expats who think they can avoid the current German Mülltrennung system should not get their hopes up just yet. In a land where the Green Party is still a significant power in parliament, the entrenched system is so ingrained in German culture, it will take a long time before lawmakers — and the German mindset — will accept such a drastic reversal. Your neighbors will still rat you out if you violate the garbage rules! The German “garbage police” won’t be eliminated any time soon!

World Ranking of Annual Municipal Waste per Capita
Selected countries, kilograms per person (best to worst, 2005)*

China 120
Poland 250
Japan 400
EU avg. 522 (in 2007)
France 540
Italy 540
Austria 560
UK 580
Germany 600
Switzerland 650
Australia 690
USA 750
Canada 791
Denmark 740
Norway 760

*The way that waste categories are determined in various countries may vary, so these OECD figures should be taken with a grain of salt.