Leading Article: Daring plan lost in a sea of rubbish

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The Independent Online
EXCEPT FOR private detectives and refuse collectors, there cannot be many people who look closely inside domestic rubbish bins. Those who do tend to be shocked by all the discarded bags, cartons, bottles and boxes that they find. Much of that packaging is a waste - not just of materials, but of energy, time and money - and ultimately of the earth itself, since industrial countries are fast running out of places to dump it. Yet there are no easy solutions, as EC environment ministers meeting today in Luxembourg are likely to hear.

Two years ago, German companies were obliged by law to take back a high proportion of their packaging materials. German industry clubbed together to reclaim unwanted packaging and send it for recycling. The plan was elegant in both its simplicity and its daring: companies that preferred not to arrange their own recycling would print a green dot on their product, and consumers would be able, by disposing of them in particular bins, to send them through a common channel. The idea was that Germany would thus do good to the environment and save money at the same time.

The public response has been overwhelming - so much so that the organisation is drowning under recycled items it cannot dispose of; without public subsidies, it may face bankruptcy. The country's rubbish exports have consequently risen twelve-fold. This has infuriated France, where some green-dot German packaging has been found dumped. British paper recyclers complain that the German scheme is driving them out of business. Worse still, foreign businesses in Germany believe the new system makes it harder for them to sell their products unless they join.

There are several lessons to learn from this fiasco. One is that governments that wish to impose new minimum recycling standards should first make sure that they can deal with the volumes that will be created. Another is that stiff new rules can cause havoc if they are imposed by a single country inside a larger free trade area. A third is that the dirigiste approach favoured by the Germans can produce contrary results. For instance, companies are banned from counting packaging that they incinerate towards the recycling quota they must meet - even though it can be better for the environment to incinerate some kinds of plastics than to carry out the many processes necessary to recycle them.

But it would be a mistake for the rest of the EC to use these problems as an excuse for inactivity. One evident consequence of the ill-fated German scheme has been to make consumers aware of the huge amounts of packaging that go to waste, and to begin a long-term downward shift in the demand for it. Only when the average shopper starts to choose goods wrapped simply rather than extravagantly will the glimmerings of a solution be in sight. A modified green-dot scheme, introduced gradually, could be the salvation of the Community as a whole.