German waste drive creates a stink: A home recycling boom has left Bonn struggling to contain a monster of its own making, writes John Eisenhammer

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EACH NATION has its particular horrors. To judge by the gasps from squirming cinema audiences, an acute one for Germans is the thought of being crushed under a mountain of household refuse.

Chilling advertisements, devised by the Environment Ministry in Bonn, show a young couple consuming happily and nonchalantly throwing out all the packaging and waste - until one day they decide to open the window to look outside, and are suddenly engulfed by an avalanche of yoghurt pots, tins and cardboard boxes.

'Make less waste]' booms the message from the screen.

For the past three years, German households have been heeding the call, collecting and sorting their recyclable waste.

Some 30 per cent of the contents of the average German household's rubbish bin in 1990 was made up of packaging waste; the proportion is now down to 5 per cent. Tins, plastic and paper drink cartons all go into a special container. Many households also have their own paper bin, and some have another for glass. There has, indeed, been an avalanche. But far from remaining a celluloid nightmare of the Environment Ministry, it has been all too real, engulfing the private sector system set up as a showcase for Germany's pioneering efforts in household waste reduction and recycling, and setting Germany bitterly at odds with some of its partners in the European Union.

The difficulties started with the best of intentions as the Duales System Deutschland (DSD) began operating in 1991. It created a network of private sector companies for collecting, sorting and recycling household waste.

The DSD was financed by retailers and producers, who pay a licence fee for a green dot on their articles' packaging. The fee was to cover the cost of collection, sorting, and a subsidy towards recycling. Today, some 15,000 products, from chocolate wrappers to tins of tomatoes, carry the green dot.

Quotas were set and rapidly swamped by the enthusiastic response of the environmentally conscious Germans, praised by Klaus Topfer, the Environment Minister, as 'world champion collectors'.

By 1993, DSD trucks were collecting amounts of household waste only meant to be reached around 1996. Firms, which earned more the more they collected and prepared for recycling, could scarcely believe their luck. Altogether, about 4.4 million tons of household packaging waste were collected last year.

But such an open-ended system soon drastically overstretched the financial resources of the DSD - not to mention the limited capacity of a recycling industry unprepared for such a waste onslaught. By last summer the DSD was on the brink of collapse with debts of around DM1bn ( pounds 400m), while other countries, notably France and Britain, were complaining loudly about unacceptable German waste exports.

Waste paper, of which Germany exported 1.3 million tons last year, was the main source of discontent. Because of its subsidy system, all waste paper collected under the DSD is made available to recyclers virtually free.

Dealers in France and Britain suddenly found their domestic markets destroyed. This fuelled an ill- tempered debate that ended with Germany, supported only by Denmark and the Netherlands, being outvoted in Brussels last December on a new European Union packaging waste directive.

Not only does this plan a minimum recycling quota of 25 per cent but it sets a maximum of 45 per cent, in a clear attempt to control the waste export problem. If a country such as Germany wishes to exceed this maximum, which it already does in all categories except plastics, then it must have sufficient domestic recycling capacity to handle the excess amount.

The German government has responded angrily to what it regards as a retrograde step by the EU's environmental laggards. 'It is not supposed to be the EU's job to standardise the environmental speed in all member states at any price, or even to reverse it,' Mr Topfer said.

Bonn is battling to have the directive scuppered by the European Parliament, and there are strong doubts over whether it will take effect in its current form or by the earliest date of 1996.

Last year, Germany recycled 66 per cent of household waste paper, 55 per cent of glass, 45 per cent of tins and 20 per cent of plastics. The targets are to be increased under the recycling law to between 60 and 70 per cent for these products from 1996.

By comparison, a plan recently prepared by 28 British companies for the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, aims at recycling 35 per cent of British household packaging waste by 2000. While easily meeting the intended EU minimum, such a quota highlights the gap with countries like Germany that are more advanced environmentally.

The problem for the Germans is that building the extra recycling capacity at home, particularly if the EU directive were to come into force, is easier said than done. Far from reducing its controversial waste paper exports, Germany will have to step them up if it wants to meet its higher recycling targets in the second half of the Nineties.

'German industry already uses all the recycled paper it can - there is simply no capacity to build up,' said Hanskarl Willms of the German Waste Disposal Industry Association in Cologne.

According to Heinz-Jurgen Buchner, waste analyst at the IKB Deutsche Industriebank in Dusseldorf, the used paper content of German newspapers is 72 per cent, of packaging paper 90 per cent, and of toilet paper 62 per cent. 'The level of re-use is already extremely high,' he said.

Germany argues that since it imports 3 million tons of new paper a year, the export of 1.3 million tons is justified.

'The problem is that the Scandinavians, from whom we buy most new paper, refuse to take any old paper back,' Mr Willms said.

The problem is still more acute with plastics, where the recycling technology is far less developed. Last year Germany produced nearly 1 million tons of household plastic waste, against which the DSD had a recycling capacity of 70,000 tons. Bins, plastic park benches and motorway sound barriers were produced. The overall amount recycled - 200,000 tons, or 20 per cent - could only be reached by exports, mainly to Eastern Europe and Asia. The DSD cites plans to raise the domestic capacity to 240,000 tons by 1996 to meet the higher quotas, but industry insiders are sceptical.

'The costs are heavy, the products crude and the market limited for recycled plastics. I don't believe the capacity will be ready in two years,' said Dietmar Ansorge at Otto, one of Germany's leading waste disposal companies.

In addition, the expansion hopes of the German household waste disposal industry face a more fundamental obstacle. To prevent the DSD from collapsing under its runaway costs, the rescue plan devised last autumn slammed a heavy lid on the system. No longer can contract firms collect as much waste as possible and rake in the fees. There is now a set limit for each area. If a firm collects plastic waste in excess of this limit, it risks a fine, while for paper and glass it will just get no fee. This year, the DSD's turnover has been fixed at DM3.2bn, or DM40 per German citizen.

'The whole collecting, sorting and recycling system has now been restricted to DM40 per person. Beyond that, it cannot go,' Mr Willms said. Having started off at a sprint, the private sector recycling system is now being ordered to learn to walk.

(Photograph omitted)