What are the problems with plastics recycling
Plastic is recycled - right? Five problems with plastic waste
The Germans are considered masters in separating waste and recycling plastic waste. But recycling is not going completely smoothly in this country either. What are the weaknesses?
Plastic is light, versatile, cheap to get, ubiquitous in our everyday lives - and an environmental problem. More and more plastic waste piles up in the world's oceans, microplastics end up in our food. It is all the more important to deal with recycling - because not all plastic can be recycled and the system has some weak points.
This is how a recycling plant works
Anyone who visits a recycling plant immediately gets the pungent odor of rubbish. The machines are noisy, you can only work with hearing protection. Huge packs of plastic waste and even larger white sacks with small, colorful labels are processed. They show the quality of the "recycled material" in it, ie the material made from old plastic, from which, for example, devices for children's playgrounds or park benches are made.
In the plants, waste is shredded, sorted, cleaned, further shredded and finally sold again. Anything that cannot be recycled is incinerated - "thermally recovered" to generate electricity and heat. This also applies to old electrical appliances or other garbage. The discipline in separating waste therefore plays an important role.
Circular economy strengthens recycling
Recycling plants are part of the German circular economy, a large sector made up of municipal and private companies that employ around 270,000 people.
Sorting and recycling are almost exclusively a matter for private companies, the dual systems - including "Der Grüne Punkt" - are responsible for packaging recycling.
Five problems with plastic waste
But the German recycling system also has weaknesses.
1. Not all plastic is recyclable - or is recycled
There are many different types of plastic, and not all of them can be used again. This includes, for example, PET bottles: The bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate can be used again as bottles, but PET trays as packaging for fruit are not recycled.
Films are also difficult, especially smaller ones: there have been few systems for this up to now. And: incineration is cheaper than recycling. As a result, only at least 36 percent of plastics in Germany had to be recycled by 2019. The quotas were increased in 2019, by 2022 63 percent of all plastics are to be recycled.
2. Sometimes design takes precedence over the environment
A detergent bottle is colored black, a shampoo bottle is completely enclosed by a thin, printed film. That may look good - but it often makes recycling difficult or impossible because the machines cannot recognize and sort the material.
Since 2019, the dual systems have therefore had to demand more license fees from manufacturers for packaging that is difficult to recycle than for others. Some manufacturers also do not want to use recyclates, i.e. recycled plastic, because it is gray instead of bright white, for example.
3. Not all of the plastic ends up in the recycling system
Many do not even know that they are only allowed to throw packaging into the yellow bin or sack. So, for example, no straws, but the foil around the straws does. After all, the proportion is high: 40 percent of all plastics go into the packaging and packaging immediately becomes garbage. That is why packaging waste is often so in focus.
The rest, however, ends up in the residual waste, which is only sorted again occasionally, the rule is incineration. An orange recycling bin, in which all plastic (and metal) can go, increases the share. But they only exist where municipalities and dual systems agree on it. A new attempt to introduce such a recycling bin across the board is not planned.
4. At some point, recycling will end
With some types of plastic, especially PET bottles, a closed cycle is possible, but this is not the rule. Recycling is often "downcycling": For example, non-returnable PET bottles do not become a new bottle after all, but fibers for the textile industry that cannot be reused.
The plastic types PE and PP, i.e. the predominantly used polyolefins, lose quality with every treatment.
5. The system has weaknesses
The various packaging waste disposal companies - the dual systems - are in competition with one another. Again and again there are complaints about "black sheep" who use legal loopholes and make cheap offers at the expense of others, as well as inconsistencies in the reported waste figures. Among other things, packaging waste from the online mail order business, for which no one paid license fees, caused controversy. A new authority has been ensuring more transparency here since 2019.
Recycling is not going perfectly in Germany either. It is also important: Germany is not only at the forefront when it comes to recycling, but also when it comes to garbage. 18.7 million tons of packaging waste were incurred in 2017 alone - mathematically that was 226.5 kilograms per person and three percent more than in the previous year. The numbers for 2018 will not be announced until 2020. In 2017, private households accounted for 47 percent of packaging waste, or 107 kilograms per capita.
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