DRAGGING strings of used cans through the streets of downtown Bonn recently, environmentalists were protesting Germany's recycling program.
``It doesn't work,'' said one student, looking out at a wall of cans strung up on scaffolding. ``Everyone will tell you it is nonsense this system.''
The recycling program, a private one sanctioned by the government, was supposed to make Germany the world's most environmentally-friendly nation. Instead, the program has run into mounting criticism, skirted bankruptcy, and created a burgeoning pile of trash that no one knows what to do with. So the government is moving to restructure the program.
The problem is not German consumers. In western Germany, they sort out two-thirds of the 26 million metric tons of household garbage that they generate each year. Two-thirds of communities are already recycling successfully. If anything, the Germans have been too good at recycling.
Take plastics, for example. Germans will have sorted out by year end an estimated 370,000 metric tons of plastic trash and disposed of it in specially marked bins. But the industry only has the capacity to recycle two-thirds of that amount. And half of that capacity lies outside Germany.
When the trash cannot be recycled, it is buried or burned. Much to the country's embarrassment, German trash has shown up in dumps in France, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia.
The problem has as much to do with profits as with technology. ``Without doubt, plastics recycling represents the greatest technological challenge for the plastics industry,'' a Commerzbank report concludes.
Plastic can be recycled into basic plastics or oil. Since Germany's chemical industry has plenty of capacity to produce basic plastics from scratch, it is not very interested in creating a competing recycled product, says Oswald Richter, an economist with Commerzbank. So the industry is pushing the idea of converting used plastics to oil. It has two facilities - one in Bottrop, which recycles plastic into low-grade oil, and one in Brandenburg, which converts it to methanol.
Recycling plastic into any of these products does not yet make economic sense, Mr. Richter says. ``But we must do something. We must have a way to reuse plastics.
Environmentalists are pushing for a system that discourages packagers from using plastic. They say glass packaging is more environmentally benign. When the system was started in 1991, environment minister Klaus Topfer, boasted that the country would be the first to move beyond a ``throwaway mentality.''
A second report dealing with garbage recycling by Deutsche Bank says the system represents a ``second best'' solution. ``Once there will be an economic use for all the materials that are being collected, then this whole system will work.''
THE federal government's goals call for recycling centers to reprocess 80 to 90 percent of all the glass, aluminum, cardboard, and paper that they receive. It is an ambitious goal that the government is considering revising.
The program, called Duale System Deutschland, was started by some 600 packaging companies after the federal government passed packaging legislation in 1990. Under the system, packagers pay a license fee to put an official Green Dot label on their goods. Companies that buy the license are obliged to assist in recycling efforts. Consumers sort their Green Dot packages in specially marked recycling bins.
This system costs 3 billion marks ($1.8 billion) a year. Despite the price - an extra $120 or so a year for the average family - consumers seem motivated to continue participating. So do companies because, by law, they have to accept any of their non-Green Dot packages if consumers bring them back. About 70 to 80 percent of the nation's 150 billion packages carry the Green Dot.
The system has careened into near-bankruptcy because only about half the 15,000 companies using the Green Dot label have agreed to pay the license fee. The government is now setting up a tighter monitoring system.
Deutsche Bank Research estimates investments in private recycling companies will total 7 billion deutsche marks through 1995 and create about 18,000 new jobs. Last year, 1,000 private companies in western Germany involved in recycling saw sales reach a record 22 billion deutsche marks - triple the total of 1989. ``Medium term, the boom in the private recycling industry will continue,'' Deutsche Bank Research concludes.