What are the disadvantages of recycling plastic

Five problems with plastic rubbish

Plastic is light, versatile, cheap to get, ubiquitous in our everyday lives - and has an image problem. The Germans are shocked by images of littered seas. Supermarkets advertise that they are taking disposable straws and cutlery off the shelves and banning plastic bags from the tills. As an environmental issue, plastic is "in". So it's no wonder that the new Federal Environment Minister visits a recycling plant on her first "summer trip".

The pungent smell of garbage rises in the nose and lingers for a long time. The machines are noisy, here at Hubert eing plastic recycling you are only allowed to work with hearing protection. In the yard there are huge bags made of plastic waste and even larger white sacks with small, colorful labels. They indicate the quality of the "recycled material" in it, i.e. the material made from old plastic that is used, for example, to make devices for children's playgrounds or park benches.

Here, 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, explains company boss Stephan eing. The discipline of the citizens in separating garbage has decreased significantly. "We recently got a set of winter tires."

Ing is part of the German circular economy, a large sector made up of municipal and private companies that employ almost 300,000 people. In the area of ​​waste recycling and disposal there are 129,000. Sorting and recycling are almost exclusively a matter for private companies, while the dual systems - including "Der Grüne Punkt" - are responsible for packaging recycling. The industry, politics and environmental associations agree: When it comes to recycling, Germany is at the forefront in a global comparison. "World champion", says Svenja Schulze.

But the German recycling system also has weaknesses. Some are being worked on, some will change next year - others will not. A selection:

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. Benjamin Bongardt from Nabu cites PET as an example: bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate can be used again as bottles, but PET trays used as packaging for fruit are not recycled. Films are also difficult, especially smaller ones: there are currently few systems for this, explains Bongardt. And: incineration is cheaper than recycling, says Stephan eing. He therefore recycles as much as is currently prescribed: 36 percent. According to the ministry, around 45 percent of all plastic waste is "recycled", i.e. not incinerated. The new packaging law will increase the quotas from 2019; 63 percent are planned for 2022.

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. From 2019, the dual systems will therefore have 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," says Bongardt, "and packaging immediately becomes rubbish." 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, explains Rolf Buschmann from the environmental organization BUND.

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. Packaging waste, for example from the online mail order business, for which nobody has paid license fees, causes controversy. Here, the central office, a new authority, should ensure more transparency from 2019.

Recycling is not going perfectly in Germany either. Therefore, one message is important to environmentalists: Germany is not only at the forefront when it comes to recycling, but also when it comes to garbage. Around six million tons of plastic waste are generated each year. "The problem lies at the beginning of the chain," says Buschmann BUND. "Do we need so much one-way packaging, so much complicated packaging?" Recycling is important - but the top priority must be to avoid waste. (dpa / rs)