Germany, Europe, worldwide: a circular economy for more sustainable resource use

Raw materials are a finite resource – in Germany, Europe and globally. What’s more, how we extract resources and dispose of materials after their use often has serious adverse impacts on human health and the environment. This makes it even more important to recognise that waste is a valuable resource and establish a sustainable circular economy.

In a sustainable system, waste prevention takes priority. Products must remain in use for as long as possible. Then comes recovery: separation, collection and recycling. Only at the end of the cycle, which should be closed wherever possible, should waste be sent for disposal or landfilling. Here too, adverse impacts on human health and the natural environment should be avoided.


Regulations at national, European and global level therefore have a key role to play in a green and equitable circular economy. This text looks at the basic legislation applicable here. The specific characteristics of the materials must be considered in relation to recycling as well (click here for more information). Furthermore, in line with an integrated understanding of resource conservation, sustainable extraction of primary raw materials is essential (click here for information); again, material-specific characteristics must be considered in this context (click here for details).

Germany: the Circular Economy Act

Since the German Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act (Kreislaufwirtschafts- und Abfallgesetz) was adopted in 1996, Germany’s waste management industry has made “prevention, then recovery, then disposal” its guiding principle. This means that the first step is to prevent waste as far as 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”.

A 2012 revision of the law, aimed at achieving harmonisation at EU level, led to the adoption of the Circular Economy Act (Kreislaufwirtschaftsgesetz) with largely identical objectives. The latest reform of the legislation – adopted by the Federal Cabinet on 12 February 2020 – goes much further.

EU directives such as the Packaging Directive, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, the Batteries Directive, the End-of-Life Vehicles Directive and the Landfill Directive must be transposed by Germany and the other EU Member States into national law.

Environmental organisations, however, have criticised the continued lack of clear provisions for businesses and the public sector, such as a mandatory percentage of recycled materials (recyclates) in manufacturing, an ambitious waste prevention target and much higher recycling rates. More could also be done to achieve a firm commitment from the public sector to prevent waste and include recycled materials criteria in procurement processes.

Europe: towards a circular economy

Resource conservation is recognised as a priority for Europe in the Europe 2020 Strategy adopted in 2010, with “resource-efficient Europe” expressly identified as one of seven flagship initiatives. The Circular Economy Package adopted by the EU in 2018 includes amendments to key waste management legislation and was transposed into German law by the Circular Economy Act, mentioned above.

Eurostat – the European Union’s statistical office, which is based in Luxembourg – collects data on countries’ progress towards the targets set. As part of its mission to provide high-quality statistics for Europe, Eurostat is responsible for two environmental data centres. The centres verify whether the various waste streams are being properly separated and processed in EU countries, whether manufacturers are genuinely fulfilling their responsibilities, and whether policy measures in the waste sector are proving effective.

The Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan

The European Green Deal, whose overarching objective is to achieve a climate-neutral Europe by 2050, includes a Circular Economy Action Plan as part of a broader industrial strategy for the EU member states.

The Action Plan proposes a sustainable product policy legislative initiative with the aim of improving product durability, reusability, reparability and recyclability. Recycled content in products should be increased as far as possible in order to minimise inputs of primary raw materials. Restrictions should be imposed on single-use products to reduce the amount of plastic waste that they create. The goal is to lower waste volumes through a rigorous commitment to waste prevention.

The position of consumers will be strengthened with measures such as improved information and the establishment of a new “right to repair”. In industry, priority will be given to addressing product groups with high circularity potential or a particularly high level of raw materials consumption, such as electronics and ICT, batteries and vehicles, packaging, plastics, textiles, construction and buildings, and food.

Worldwide: the Basel Convention

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal broke new ground in relation to the developed countries’ responsibility for their hazardous waste streams. It entered into force on 5 May 1992. Germany became a party to the Convention on 20 July 1995.

This landmark convention regulates the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes worldwide. It establishes controls whereby transboundary movements of wastes are subject to consent being provided in writing by the exporting, importing and all transit states. The aim is to protect countries which do not have the technical capacity and the necessary facilities to dispose of hazardous wastes appropriately.

In practice, many companies circumvent the rules, with the result that increasing volumes of hazardous waste end up in the countries of the Global South. There is also vocal criticism of the United States’ failure to ratify the Convention. The US exports an estimated 80 per cent of its e-waste, thereby absolving itself of responsibility. In addition, many pre-owned vehicles and electrical/electronic devices are exported quite legally to African countries, only to be scrapped soon afterwards.

The Oeko-Institut’s researchers work on various aspects of recycling, often in cooperation with local partners.

Project: Environmentally Sound Disposal and Recycling of E-waste in Ghana

Agbogbloshie scrap market in Ghana’s capital Accra serves as a central marketplace for many local informal scrap collectors, dismantlers and traders. They collect and recover scrap that comes from local usage and from Europe, working in conditions that pose serious risks to human health and the environment. As these workers are dependent on the income generated from these activities, it is essential to involve them in the necessary reform processes.

For more than 10 years, researchers at the Oeko-Institut have been collaborating with local partners on developing strategies to improve this situation. As part of the Environmentally Sound Disposal and Recycling of E-waste in Ghana project implemented by the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, they worked with local organisations to introduce an incentive system, offering collectors and recyclers access to an appropriate disposal system for certain types of highly problematic waste.

A particular problem – and the source of much of the pollution – is the practice of open burning of cables as a means of extracting the valuable raw materials that they contain. The project provided a compensation payment, exceeding the actual value of the cable, for each cable handed in to a recycling enterprise by a collector.

After initial scepticism, the suppliers came to recognise the health and economic benefits offered by the scheme. In total, more than 27 tonnes of waste cables were handed in by suppliers for safe recycling in almost 1400 individual deliveries during the project period. With financial support from Germany, the Government of Ghana is taking the project forward and extending it to other waste streams as well.

Oeko-Institut blog article: Using incentives to put out fires

Study: Battery recycling in the solar sector in rural areas of developing and transition countries

For many people living in remote areas outside the cities in developing and transition countries, solar power is often the only available source of affordable and clean energy for lighting in the evening, mobile phone charging and refrigeration of medicines. However, solar home systems and solar lighting always use batteries as well. The batteries have a limited lifespan and are thus a source of problematic waste.

On behalf of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, researchers from the Oeko-Institut worked on developing possible solutions to the problem of waste and hazardous substances that these countries are likely to face in the near future.

One approach is to choose a type of battery with a long lifespan and good recyclability before installing off-grid solar power. The study therefore compared lead-acid batteries, which are in widespread use, with lithium-ion batteries of various types, and investigated the business models associated with solar energy systems.

Finding country- and project-specific solutions

The researchers did not identify a “one size fits all” solution for all applications. What is needed, instead, are country- and project-specific decisions on which type of battery and which business model are likely to work best. Before projects start, it is also important to analyse local recycling and disposal options and factor them into decision-making.

In general, the batteries and systems should have as long a lifespan as possible. Their design should also incorporate features that prevent unsafe practices by users, such as opening of battery cases. Policy-makers, Western project partners and solar enterprises must always consider what happens when the systems on the market reach the end of their useful life, in order to prevent today’s clean energy from becoming tomorrow’s waste disposal problem.

End-of-Life Management of Batteries in the Off-Grid Solar Sector: Study by the Oeko-Institut on behalf of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH