Out of Germany: Dotty about a load of rubbish

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The Independent Online
BONN - On first arriving here it all seemed highly impressive. Recycling was, it was clear, a serious business. Blue bins, yellow bins, brown bins, green bins. In Germany, every kind of rubbish has a different home and woe betide anyone who is confused.

Every householder is issued with a Rubbish Calendar, with a multitude of coloured stripes and dots, to ensure that all household waste, from banana skins to must-be-washed yoghurt pots, from cardboard boxes to batteries, ends up in the right place at the right time.

Everybody is supplied, too, with a 93-page Rubbish Planner explaining every last detail, so nobody should have an excuse for getting it wrong. (When we did get it wrong once we soon had a knock on the door from the neighbours to set us right.)

We had arrived in Bonn from the London borough of Hackney, which could be described as another world. The bottle bank at the end of our road was permanently overflowing (dumped bags and boxes of bottles blocked the pavement); recycling of old newspapers was, council officials said, out of the question. The notices still proclaimed Hackney as a nuclear-free zone, which was very comforting. But that was as far as environmental consciousness went.

It was clear, however, that efficient Germany would be another matter. Almost every item of packaging has on it der grune Punkt, the green-dot logo that proves Germany is serious about recycling. If a product has a green dot you may put it into a yellow sack and into a yellow bin, from where it will be taken to be sorted and recycled. Nothing, you are encouraged to believe, will be wasted.

In reality, this is all so much garbage. Environmentalists in Germany have finally lost patience with what they see as a gigantic fraud perpetrated on a well-meaning public by German industry, in collusion with the country's political leaders. The green dot does little to reduce packaging or rubbish, which is the environmentalists' main aim.

The green spot has proved to be a financial and environmental nightmare. Part of the problem, paradoxically, has been public enthusiasm. Because of a popular eagerness to help the environment, much more green-dot waste has been sorted into yellow sacks than can be processed. Some piles up in Germany. Some is exported and causes yet more grumbling elsewhere.

The green-dot system (officially the Duales System Deutschland or DSD) was created and paid for by German industry, which saw it as the lesser of two evils. Rather than being forced to reduce its packaging - which it feared more than anything - it decided to fund the green-dot collection and recycling system. Or rather, the consumer pays: prices have increased by several pfennigs per item to cover the costs of the odyssey from yellow bin to sorting point to recycling plant and back.

With waste paper and glass it is generally agreed that the cost of recycling is worthwhile. But with plastics few except the manufacturers believe there is anything to be gained from expensive and partial recycling. Better, say the environmentalists, to use less plastic in the first place.

The rumbling discontent exploded when the DSD announced last week that, on top of everything else, it is drowning in debt. That is partly because the whole operation has proved more expensive than expected. In addition, many manufacturers have failed to pay up. Triumph has turned to fiasco.

Klaus Topfer, the Environment Minister, who used to boast that the Germans were 'world champions' in recycling, announced this week that the financial future of the DSD was now secure. But few believe that the troubles are over. Several regional governments say they want to pull out. The opposition Social Democrats (SPD) have called for the abolition of the green-dot system and the creation of a system that would oblige manufacturers to produce reusable containers wherever possible.

According to Michael Muller, the SPD environment spokesman, 'the DSD is an environmental con-trick which just leads to mass burning instead of avoiding waste'. In the words of one newspaper headline: 'The green dot is a dead dot.'

Meanwhile, nobody can complain of a shortage of rules and regulations on recycling. One of my favourites is an instruction on the (always clean) bottle bank near where we live. The bottle bank is on the edge of a field, a quarter of a mile from the nearest house. A notice says it may be used from 7am to 7pm, but not between the hours of 12pm and 2pm, or on Sundays or holidays. 'Please think of your fellow citizens.'

And have I ever illegally dropped bottles in during a weekend lunchtime? Please. In Bonn only hooligans would even think of such a thing.