Issue: March 2016, A roundabout, not a one-way street – Making sustainable waste management work

In Focus

Waste policy x 28

The circular economy in the EU

Waste policy is in good shape in Germany. It earns frequent and lavish praise from all sides: for its state-of-the-art waste separation, its nationwide bottle deposit scheme and its high recycling rates in many sectors. Compared to the rest of the EU, some might say that Germany has every right to sit back and let the others get on with it. But resting on one’s laurels is the way to fall behind – by failing to implement new technologies and missing out on long-term trends. For example, here in Germany, the debate – initiated by the Oeko-Institut with a study published in 2014 – about the new role of waste incineration in the context of the climate goals has scarcely begun. The Federal Republic still has work to do to stay on track towards the EU’s circular economy.

When it comes to well-functioning waste management, the European countries’ performance varies, in some cases considerably. “There are the frontrunners which are already well in the lead, with state-of-the-art facilities, a nationwide system for the collection and separation of various municipal waste streams, and above-average recycling and composting rates,” says Dr Georg Mehlhart, a senior researcher at the Oeko-Institut. “And it’s true that Germany is way ahead compared with other European countries.” Germany already recycles or composts around 64 per cent of its waste, with Austria achieving 58 per cent and Belgium 55 per cent. In the European Union, only five countries have exceeded the 49 per cent mark, and in six countries, the recycling and composting rate in 2013 was below 20 per cent. The weighted average for all 28 EU member states was just under 42 per cent.

On behalf of the European Commission, Oeko-Institut experts have been studying the fine detail of Europe’s waste policy since 2008 as part of a joint project with Argus GmbH and the Copenhagen Resource Institute (CRI). “The project aims to improve data in the waste sector, focusing, for example, on industrial and municipal waste but also on scrap cars and e-waste,” says Georg Mehlhart. “There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the difficulties of comparing data across Europe, and this is true for a certain number of countries. But in general, the quality and availability of data have greatly improved.” However, reporting on municipal waste is still voluntary at present, which means that there are few opportunities to enforce agreements on a mandatory basis. The European Commission’s latest Circular Economy Package addresses this issue with its various proposals, which are currently being discussed by the Member States and the European Parliament. “We are also investigating to what extent the Member States are meeting the targets on waste treatment,” says Georg Mehlhart. The researchers are further exploring how individual countries can improve their waste management by focusing on waste prevention, efficient recycling, low-impact disposal and reuse.


The European Commission’s Circular Economy Package is intended to improve waste management – but when it was unveiled in July 2014, it attracted considerable criticism, not least from Germany. “As a result, the proposal was withdrawn by the new Juncker Commission,” says Georg Mehlhart. A new draft was submitted in December 2015 and is now being discussed by national government representatives in the Council and by the European Parliament. “Although some elements of the original draft have been dropped, such as targets for the avoidance of food waste, the draft is important for progress across the EU. The recycling targets for domestic waste and packaging are quite realistic; indeed, for the north-west European countries, they lack ambition.” Germany should not oppose more stringent application of the concept of recycling, as it did in 2014, says Georg Mehlhart: the quotas should now apply solely to substances which genuinely replace other raw materials. “An even better option is functional recycling in which the recovered secondary substance performs the same function as the original material,” he says. “There is also enough information and studies that enable us to identify losses in the recycling process, from collection to new product.” Although this would require changes in reporting, it is the only way to visualise and compare the real effects, he says.


With its recycling system, Germany is undoubtedly a frontrunner when it comes to waste policy – but that doesn’t mean that it has an unblemished record. Georg Mehlhart explains: “In my view, Germany is far too passive at the European level. You often get the impression that the Germans are saying: ‘You know what, we have met almost all the targets so we don’t need to get involved.’ But that attitude isn’t fair – Europe relies on the frontrunner countries to continue to generate momentum.” Germany needs to take a stronger stance, for example, on minimum standards for manufacturer responsibility, a more progressive definition of recycling in all waste ordinances, and better reporting, to say nothing of the introduction of new targets on food waste avoidance and the reuse of packaging via deposit schemes. “Europe needs Germany’s sensitive support,” says Georg Mehlhart. “What’s more, in light of the climate targets, it is essential to move the debate about the long-term future of waste incineration plants – which is only just beginning in Germany – into the European arena.” This, he says, can prevent overinvestment in inefficient incineration plants to 2030.

Of course, despite all the criticism, the environmental benefits of the German waste management system should not be ignored. “A major plus point is the landfill ban, for example,” says Georg Mehlhart. “That’s because landfill produces methane emissions, which have an extremely negative impact on the GHG balance sheet.” So what are the benefits of a properly organised system for the collection, recovery and reuse of recyclables from waste? And what are the advantages of energy-efficient incineration of residual waste that cannot be used for other purposes? These issues were explored by Oeko-Institut researchers and the Heidelberg-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) in a joint study of the climate protection potential of waste management for the OECD countries, the member states and, in three detailed analyses, for India, Egypt and the United States. The study, commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency, found that with better recycling rates and efficient waste incineration for energy generation, the OECD countries can reduce GHG emissions by 353 million tonnes per year, with a figure of 91 million for the EU-28. In the US, which sends more than half its urban waste to landfill, an increase in recycling rates and efficient waste incineration with energy recovery can reduce GHG emissions by as much as 160 million tonnes each year. And in the best scenario, there is scope to cut GHG emissions by 25 million tonnes per year in India and approximately 14 million tonnes per year in Egypt.

Yet another example, then, that Germany is well on track. And exporting innovative and sound environmental techniques to other countries would lead to even more progress on the circular economy. “It is important to support other countries and share our benefits with others,” says Georg Mehlhart. “Ultimately, that can also generate substantial profits for German companies specialising in waste management.” Christiane Weihe

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