Fee-Based Recycling of Trash Is a Mixed Bag for Germans

Now, really, who could resist an invitation like this? "Come visit your trash!"

All over Germany, municipal-waste sorting centers and recycling plants of all kinds will be opening their doors to the public this weekend.

"We would like to demonstrate to the public that recycling works, that it is credible," says Vera Becher-Andre, a spokeswoman for Duales System Deutschland, a not-for-profit corporation that handles the "Green Dot" system for recycling consumer packaging. More than 300 sites will take part in the event, which is sponsored by Duales System. Most will offer an "open house," including tours of production processes.

The idea is to show the public what really happens to the specially marked packaging people so faithfully sort out from their other trash and garbage.

Under German law, consumer-goods manufacturers are responsible for the waste their packaging creates: Polluters must pay, in other words. The overwhelming majority of them discharge this responsibility by participating in the Green Dot regime, which started operation in 1991 and is administered by Duales System.

Manufacturers in the system pay license fees entitling them to use a distinctive double-arrow logo on their packaging. Consumers then put packaging with this logo into separate, specially marked bins emptied by private trash haulers.

Manufacturers who choose not to participate in the Green Dot program still have legal responsibility for their packaging - for taking back empty bottles or cartons from consumers.

Legislation that would require nonparticipating manufacturers to document their waste management is awaiting the approval of the upper house of the parliament.

The markets for recycled glass and some other materials are firmly established. Demonstrating that recycling plastics is not only technically feasible but cost-effective is coming more slowly.

Manufacturers can reduce their license fees by reducing the amount of packaging their products require: by putting laundry detergent in plastic sacks instead of bulky cardboard cartons, or by packaging spices in little plastic "refill" packs rather than glass jars.

The cost of the licensing fees must ultimately be passed along to consumers, but households that faithfully sort Green Dot waste from general waste should, in theory, see their municipal trash removal fees fall or at least not rise.

In theory.

In fact, local fees continue to rise, despite the fact that the environment-conscious Germans have taken recycling and trash-avoidance strategies so seriously.

The average citizen here threw 157 pounds of packaging into Green Dot bins last year, up from 144 pounds in 1995, according to Duales System research. This corresponds to 86 percent of all consumer-packaging waste from households and small business - up from 79 percent from 1995.

The legislation establishing the Green Dot system holds manufacturers collectively responsible for meeting certain quotas each year. Last year's target for glass recycling was 72 percent; the rate achieved was 85 percent, according to Duales System.

And there are clear signs that there is simply less trash being produced. In Bonn, for instance, only 101,000 metric tons of trash had to be incinerated last year - down from 155,000 as recently as 1990.

But less is, alas, more. The Taxpayers' League, in Wiesbaden, calculates that the unit cost of trash removal nationwide is up over 200 percent since 1985. The main cause of the problem is that taxpayers must continue to finance overcapacity at waste-management sites.

In other words, German towns and cities have more waste-management facilities than they need now that there is less trash, due to the success of the recycling programs.

Another problem is that with so much waste going into a separate "stream," so to speak, municipal incinerators do not have enough easily combustible material coming into them to operate optimally.

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