Are recyclable items considered as waste

Avoidance and recycling of waste: protecting the climate and resources

The best waste is that which does not arise at all. (airborne77 / Fotolia.com)

Every year, around 37 million tons of waste are generated in German households, that is 450 kilograms per inhabitant and year. Around 55 percent of the waste is recycled. Material recycling takes place in waste paper, waste metals, waste glass, almost all organic waste and almost half of all plastic waste.

Numerous small electrical appliances, electronic items, computers and accessories end up in the household waste. This is not only associated with a waste of energy, many valuable materials - such as rare metals that are becoming scarce on the world market - end up in the slag and filter dust during incineration and are thus lost. The BUND calls for higher recycling quotas and stronger incentives for avoidance to be stipulated.

Waste: Avoid before recycling, recycle before disposal

Waste hierarchy according to EU legislation (waste directive):

  • Waste prevention
  • Prepare for reuse
  • recycling
  • Other recovery processes, e.g. thermal recovery (incineration with energy recovery)
  • Elimination

Examples of waste avoidance are reusable systems such as reusable beverage bottles. They are still not surpassed in their ecological balance by any other beverage packaging. The reuse of objects that have not yet become waste, such as well-preserved furniture and utensils, is waste prevention. The longer the lifespan of these products and the easier it is to repair, the better it works.

Recycling rates could be higher

Material recycling works well for glass, metals and paper / cardboard. (sonja_paetow / pixabay.com)

Material recycling works well for glass, metals and paper / cardboard. The recycling rate for glass is over 80 percent, and reuse saves large amounts of energy. The return rate for paper in 2009 was also over 80 percent.

Many types of paper and cardboard are made almost exclusively from waste paper. The production of recycled paper saves around 60 percent (!) Of energy and water compared to fresh fiber paper.

Overall, the recycling rates can still be increased. For reasons of raw material and energy efficiency, BUND calls for greater political commitment to increase recycling rates. For the recycling of municipal waste, a legal requirement of a total of 80 percent by weight should be laid down.

For the waste fractions paper, metal and glass, 85 percent by weight is feasible, for electrical and electronic scrap 90 percent by weight. A sensible step in this context is the improved collection of waste using a recycling bin. Light packaging and other plastics and metals should go there, regardless of whether it is packaging. Separate recording systems should be developed for small electrical appliances.

Burning is the worst option

With thermal recycling, part of the energy contained in the waste is recovered in the incineration plant, but the energy balance is usually less favorable than with high-quality material recycling, and valuable materials such as copper and precious metals are lost.

The BUND is committed to ensuring that incineration in waste-to-energy plants should not be equated with recycling, as is possible in the draft of the Federal Government's Circular Economy Act for waste with a high calorific value.

Questions and answers about plastic waste

The many inquiries that BUND repeatedly receives on the subject of plastics show that there is a lot of confusion as to what the "best" way to deal with plastics is. The following questions and answers are intended to help you identify problems and identify possible solutions.

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What is plastic or "plastic"?

More and more substances are being produced artificially using chemical or physical methods. The reason for this is usually the technical requirements for the material. They then usually become long-term stable plastic materials that only degrade very slowly in nature. The word "plastic" for plastics has become common because these materials are very malleable (= plastic).

The most common starting materials for plastics are petroleum and natural gas. Only a small part is initially made from natural substances (such as corn, sugar, starch). However, the chemical changes also make these plastics substances that are problematic in the environment.

Because plastics are often used in single-use products, the amount of waste increases. If the raw material from the waste is not properly fed into the recycling cycle, a so-called "entry" into the environment occurs. As a non-natural and long-lasting substance, plastic then pollutes living beings, for example when animals eat.

Where does the plastic in the environment actually come from?

Due to the immense amount of plastic used, a lot of plastics also get into the environment. Everyone knows this from everyday life: Food and products are being packed more and more elaborately - and garbage is then carelessly or deliberately disposed of in nature, in parks, on streets or public places. Public awareness of the negative effects of plastics on the environment has risen sharply in recent years.

In addition to topics that are widely discussed in public, such as the abandonment of plastic bags or disposable coffee cups, other sources and pathways of plastic entering nature are also increasingly coming into the public focus. As a result of abuse and a lack of control in the German waste management sector, despite clear legal requirements, plastic is repeatedly released into the environment. However, plastics are also released during the manufacturing process, during further processing into products and when used outdoors.

For a long time, the topic was not taken seriously enough. More and more studies are now under way to record and assess the harmful effects of plastic on the environment.

In a study by the Fraunhofer Institute Umsicht from 2018, plastic input in Germany is estimated at just under 450,000 tons per year. The majority of this (330,000 tons) consists of microplastics, i.e. plastic parts with an edge length of less than five millimeters. The remaining 26 percent consist of larger parts that can break down into microplastics over time.

How much plastic waste is recycled?

In total, only 17.3 percent of plastic waste is currently recycled in this country. If the recycling of production waste in plastics processing is also added, it is 30.6 percent. These figures do not take into account the recycling of "German" waste abroad, as absolutely reliable figures are not available.

The rate is even lower worldwide: just nine percent of the plastic waste generated in 2015 was recycled.

Does plastic recycling make sense at all? Wouldn't it be better to completely burn plastic waste in Germany and recycle the waste heat for energy?

Plastic recycling makes ecological sense! If more plastic is recycled than incinerated, we save energy, fossil raw materials and CO2 emissions.

This becomes particularly clear when the two alternatives recycling and incineration are compared in terms of energy: recycling around 85 percent of the energy content of the plastics is retained (and can therefore continue to be used), while only 30 percent can be used with incineration. In the event of incineration, the difference must be used again for the manufacture of new products.

In the incineration process, the raw materials from which the products, which ultimately became waste, were made, are of course also lost. It's not just about plastics, but also about broken objects of daily use, etc. For example, at most some of the metals can still be separated and recycled after incineration.

In addition, the efficiency of waste incineration plants in terms of energy generation is far below the efficiency of other types of generation. This is due to the very complex cleaning of the exhaust air from the combustion process, which is necessary to filter out pollutants from the exhaust gas. Of course, cleaning also consumes raw materials and energy.

And waste incineration naturally results in emissions: an average of 0.7 to 1.2 tons of CO2 per ton of waste burned, around half of which is fossil. Depending on the composition of the garbage, this number can also be significantly higher.

The waste hierarchy laid down in the Recycling Management Act (KrWG) provides for waste avoidance as the first point. This is the most sensible step in solving the plastic handling problem. After preparation for reuse and recycling, recovery (including incineration) and disposal follow. From the BUND's point of view, this ranking also represents a logical approach to the plastic problem. The greatest effort must be invested in solving the problem, namely in avoiding plastic waste.

Most of the garbage is generated in Asia, so why should I separate it here?

First of all, it should be noted that in most Asian countries (per capita) there is not as much waste as in the industrialized countries (including Japan). The garbage there also consists mainly of organic waste. In addition, recycling measures have already been initiated in many Asian countries (e.g. China, Japan and South Korea), but these certainly need to be intensified.

Apart from that: What speaks against it if we in Germany proceed with sensible organizational measures and effective technology? Then we can set a good example that others can adopt. The separation and recycling of recyclable waste has advantages not only for Germany but for all countries because it saves raw materials and creates jobs.

And apart from technological and economic arguments: In this country too, far too much plastic ends up in nature. The search for solutions to the plastic problem concerns everyone. With less plastic, the first step has already been taken.

This can also reduce the amount of plastic waste exported from Germany to Asia, which continues to exacerbate the problem there. Because the waste is usually not recycled in the Asian importing countries due to a lack of capacity, but disposed of in some other way.

In 2018, Germany was still the third largest exporter of plastic waste in a global comparison! This could be changed through stricter regulations and controls for the export of plastic waste.

Why should I separate my plastic waste? Can't everything be technically solved today?

If recyclable materials are already collected separately in the household, this always results in a better quality of the recycling products. The materials are cleaner and can therefore be separated from each other much better during technical re-sorting.

Since raw materials are becoming scarcer worldwide, the demand for secondary raw materials of higher quality will continue to rise. This not only applies to plastic waste, but also e.g. for waste paper, i.e. for the blue bin. Separate collection will always be necessary for plastic waste and waste paper, as they would be soiled far too easily if mixed with residual waste.

Whether I separate the garbage or not, it will be thrown together anyway.

You hear that often, but it's not true!

Waste paper and cardboard, waste glass and organic waste are - once separated and recorded using the differently colored recyclable bins - not mixed with one another. Because they can only be used well if they are separated and usually also bring in money. Recycling is more difficult with lightweight packaging. But at least the metals are easy to recycle. In the case of beverage cartons, the paper content is usually recycled and the aluminum and plastic layers are thermally recycled in cement works.

However, it is much more difficult to obtain uniform, high-quality material flows from plastics. The main reason for this is their different composition with a large number of additives. Nevertheless, some of the plastic collected in the yellow bin and sack is easily recyclable. Unfortunately, the formation of a closed cycle is not yet possible: The collected packaging cannot be used again as food packaging. The plastic residues that cannot be otherwise used are incinerated.

Without separate collection, however, all plastic waste would be incinerated! Because practically no recyclable plastics can be obtained from residual waste. Anything that ends up in the residual waste is therefore not recycled.

The "Green Dot" does not cover the non-returnable PET bottles that are taken back by retailers (on average around 480,000 tons per year). This "waste fraction" is fairly homogeneous and is therefore almost entirely recycled. As a rule, however, reusable bottles made of PET or glass, which are reused many times, are ecologically better than non-returnable PET bottles.

What happens to the recycled material anyway?

As a rule, the plastic packaging collected in yellow sacks and yellow bins can only be used for other purposes (buckets, plastic pipes, window frames, etc.). There are also first examples of containers made from recycled plastic for cleaning agents and hygiene articles.

Primary material can also be replaced by secondary material for beverage bottles made of PET, but not yet completely. Fresh PET is still required. Around 400,000 tons of recyclate (= secondary raw materials for the manufacture of new products) were used in the processing of plastic packaging in 2017.

If the quality of the secondary raw materials produced is somewhat lower, these materials can be used for other purposes - from noise protection walls to ballpoint pens - and also replace primary material. In 2017, over 21 percent of recyclates were used in the construction sector.

Why can't black packaging be recycled?

The sorting process during material separation works with the help of infrared light. The black dye prevents the light reflections that are characteristic of recognizing the type of plastic and that the sorting machine needs.

How much plastic is potentially recyclable?

If only recyclable plastics were used in the future, almost 100 percent of plastic waste could theoretically be recycled. In the case of packaging, this might almost be achievable, but not yet in the short or medium term. Because there are many composite packaging that consist of several layers (e.g. bags made of several layers and beverage cartons). The recycling rate is lower for the other objects made of plastic or with a proportion of plastic in the product. For example, thermosets, which are processed in glass fiber reinforced plastics, cannot be recycled by melting them down because they decompose beforehand. The proportion of thermosets in the total consumption of plastics in Germany is in the order of magnitude of a little over ten percent. In addition, high-quality recycling of recyclable plastics must first be organized.

There are ideas to fish plastic out of the sea again: Does that make sense?

First of all, it is technically very difficult to remove plastic from the ocean, given the enormous extent of marine pollution.

But BUND also takes a critical view of the previous approaches from an ecological perspective. Because the sea is a very complex habitat! The idea that you could "simply fish out plastic with a net" is misleading: there are no "rubbish islands" floating on the surface of the water consisting of large parts. Rather, the majority of the plastic in the ocean is actually made up of microplastics. In addition, only a small part is floating on the surface; the vast majority of plastic waste is in the water column and on the ocean floor. However, the water column and the water surface are only living spaces of living beings that move passively by ocean currents and winds: plankton and new clay. These creatures would be fished out with all methods of marine cleansing currently under discussion. This would remove an important part of the food web with the plastic!

In summary, it can be said that the ecological effects of large technical solutions on the marine environment have not been considered enough in any of the solutions presented so far.

The "Fishing for Litter" method is already being used, in which fishermen can dispose of the garbage they have caught in the ports free of charge. This is more environmentally friendly as there is no additional fishing. Cleaning up beaches and riverside is another option that also helps raise awareness among those involved. But even that alone will not solve the problem. It doesn't work without prevention. And that means: waste avoidance and correct disposal of all plastic waste.

Can "bioplastics" be broken down into microplastics?

Yes, this is a normal intermediate stage in the breakdown process. There are also different types of "bioplastics": namely those that are easily and quickly degradable, but also those that degrade very poorly. In advertising for the advantages of "bioplastics", some things are misrepresented, e.g. a supposedly compostable plastic does not decompose on the compost for a long time. In addition, "bioplastics" are currently generally not recycled because there are no technical systems for separating and utilizing these substances.

Click here for the FAQ on microplastics

You can support waste prevention

With this purchase you save packaging waste, the shopping bag and you prevent food waste. (Brooke Cagle / CC0 1.0)
  • Avoiding short-lived single-use products means avoiding waste.
  • You can shop prudently, e.g. to prevent food from spoiling as much as possible.
  • If there is still waste, the correct use of the collection systems for paper, glass, light packaging, organic waste, etc. is an important prerequisite for the highest possible recycling and thus for saving energy and raw materials.

Tips for avoiding waste

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