Prevention, recovery, disposal – greening waste management

Since the German Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act was adopted in 1996 the country’s waste management industry has made the hierarchy “Prevention, then recovery, then disposal” its maxim. This means that waste should first be prevented if at all possible, then any residual substances arising should be comprehensively recycled at the level of materials or energy, and finally the remaining residues should be disposed of in a manner “commensurate with the public good”. In Germany a total of 450 kilograms of refuse is produced per resident – more than half of which is already collected separately and sent for recycling.

The Oeko-Institut believes that the segregated collection and recovery of the recyclable materials paper, glass and packaging must continue to be carried out rigorously and efforts to prevent waste redoubled. Wherever possible both material and energy recovery should take place through cascading. This means that valuable resources are removed from refuse and eventually used to replace primary resources or to generate process energy, heat and/or electricity. In this way waste management can make a contribution to meeting the urgently needed targets for climate change mitigation and resource conservation.

Waste prevention – at the heart of environmental waste policy

The Oeko-Institut has been working for many years on strategies for preventing waste from arising at all. From 2010 to 2011 our scientists, commissioned by the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA), put together the foundations for a national waste prevention programme. To do this they evaluated models which help to prevent waste in Germany and other countries, in both the private and public sector, with regard to their effectiveness.

In a second stage the Oeko-Institut is now working with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) in Heidelberg, the Institute for Environmental Strategies (Ökopol) in Hamburg, the company Ressource Abfall in Elze and the Office for Environmental Science Berlin on a follow-up project to develop more detailed foundations, especially with regard to the assessment of environmental impacts, feasibility and sustainability of waste prevention measures. The aim is to produce concrete proposals concerning which of the measures researched in the first project are preferable and how these can best be integrated. A key component of this work will be the transmission of information and knowledge from producers, trade, consumers and government. A major concern for the Oeko-Institut is that products’ service life and intensity of use should be increased. In addition, more information should be provided and awareness raised among all market participants, and conditions need to be created to internalise environmental costs into the prices of products.

Optimising waste recovery: the “dry recyclables” bin

The Oeko-Institut is also developing solutions to the problem of how to recover refuse in as environmentally sound a manner as possible and at the same time achieve comprehensive recycling of resources. To this end research scientists have been monitoring the introduction of a “dry recyclables” bin for more than two years. This is expected to replace the “yellow bag” before the end of 2013 and to improve recovery of other recyclables besides packaging.

In a current project the Oeko-Institut has developed a joint proposal with the HTP Engineering Company in Aachen for the way in which quotas for the collection and recovery of residual materials in the recyclables bin should be set. The experts make it clear that to start with the benchmark for the quotas should be changed. They believe that the quantity of recyclable materials to be collected should not be based on the amount of licensed packaging, as previously, but on a set quantity of waste per resident. In addition they present a detailed proposal for future recovery quotas for packaging, metal and plastic products, and drinks cartons. The quotas should be amended in a “self-learning” process that keeps step with the development of technologies.

The contribution of waste management to climate change mitigation

The Oeko-Institut experts examined the contribution of waste management to climate change mitigation in Germany in 2009, with the following outcome: in total, waste management already saves almost 18 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents annually from municipal waste and waste wood. This corresponds approximately to the CO2 emissions of 7.7 million cars, each driven an average of 13,000 kilometres per year. Compared with 1990 this amounts to a reduction of around 53 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents. Besides this, the potential for reductions in the other European states (EU 27), Turkey, Tunisia and Mexico was audited. Since these countries, unlike Germany and a few other European states, consign untreated household waste to landfill, the potential there for reducing CO2 is in most cases considerably greater still.

The focus of a new study that the Oeko-Institut is currently undertaking on behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency is to demonstrate the potential for climate change mitigation of an international shift in waste management towards recycling and an end to large-scale landfilling. In partnership with IFEU, the Oeko-Institut is researching how the situation in waste management compares internationally. To do this the research scientists are analysing the different methods of waste recovery in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, the USA, India and Egypt, and the potential to contribute to climate targets by optimised treatment and recovery. The study is expected to be presented in early 2013.

Outlook: How government can promote waste prevention

Pivotal provisions for waste recovery will be underpinned by legislation during the next two years. The Oeko-Institut believes that the above-mentioned waste prevention programme plays a key part in this. However, in the final analysis, the involvement and awareness-raising of the consumers themselves will be essential for successful implementation. Only if they know which products are manufactured without wasting resources, how long these will last and whether and how they can be repaired, can consumers themselves contribute to preventing waste through their buying behaviour. In this respect the experiences from the consumer information campaign EcoTopTen #Link on climate change mitigation shall also be used for waste prevention and resource conservation!

Another important stakeholder group is the manufacturing industry, which can make a considerable contribution to waste prevention through its decisions on product design and use of materials. That is why a key starting point for government is on one hand to provide information on the necessity for waste prevention and resource conservation, and on the other to facilitate the exchange of experience between all groups, while employing economic incentives and other political instruments for waste prevention.