What really happens to all that garbage


Henning Wilts

To person

holds a PhD in economics and is head of the circular economy department at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. His work focuses on transformation processes for circular economy, the economy of waste avoidance and resource efficiency. [email protected]

For decades, Germany has been an international pioneer and role model in the field of waste management: Waste was and is safely and reliably disposed of in Germany and is practically no longer a direct threat to the population. Germany is rightly proud of its waste management infrastructure with a differentiated collection structure and, for example, technically exemplary waste incineration plants - in fact, no European country has higher recycling rates: it is 79 percent for all waste, the waste statistics even show a recycling rate of 90.1 percent for municipal waste off. [1] Against this background, the type of waste generated in Germany was considered (illustration 1), for a long time as a technically "solved" problem without the need for further action.
(& copy Federal Statistical Office 2017)

In recent years, however, the waste management sector has undergone a massive change of perspective under the catchphrase "circular economy": According to the ideas of the European Commission, which presented its circular economy action plan in 2015, waste should primarily be seen as a potential raw material in the future; Both the natural resources contained in individual products and their economic value should be preserved as optimally as possible at the end of the usage phase. In view of the scarcity of raw materials in Europe, the waste should be recycled and fed back into the production process in order to ensure European competitiveness in the long term. [2]

However, this also brings new questions into focus: What exactly happens to our garbage? Where does it go and in which parts of the world is it recycled? And who then has access to the raw materials that are recovered from them?

From the classic perspective of "disposal security" these questions were irrelevant, the main thing is that someone takes care of the garbage: The 90.1 percent recycling rate says nothing about these questions. In fact, waste is increasingly becoming an internationally traded economic good, with Germany still looking for approaches and instruments to keep and recycle the actually "interesting" waste in the country: if you look at it material reuse rate, which quantifies the reuse of waste in industry, with a material reuse rate of 11 percent, Germany is well behind countries such as the Netherlands (27 percent) or Italy (19 percent). [3]

The challenges and the "business models" underlying the international waste economy differ greatly from waste stream to waste stream. Against this background, I will use the examples of end-of-life cars and packaging waste to explain where our rubbish goes and what happens to it. Finally, I will draw some conclusions about what this means for the governance of a German circular economy.