As an industrial nation, Germany is particularly dependent on the reliable availability of raw materials. The protection of natural resources, their economical use and the extraction of secondary natural resources1 from waste or residues are highly important, not only for humans and the environment, but especially for the German industry, which is dependent on imports for a number of natural resources it needs.

Particularly against the background of the increasing global demand for natural resources, but also the challenges posed by climate change, the focus is increasingly shifting to a circular economy in which the aim is to achieve closed natural resource cycles with as little material loss as possible as early as the product development stage.

The first legal foundations for waste disposal were already developed in some parts of the country at the beginning of the 19th century. The first uniform federal regulation was created in 1972 with the enactment of the Waste Disposal Act.

Legal base

Environmental pollution, the scarcity of landfill sites in the 1980s and the growing realisation that materi- als and energy sources derived from nature are valuable resources have triggered the development of a modern recycling economy. This is largely shaped by the Recycling Management Act (KrWG), which is based on the EU Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC of 19 November 2008. An essential element of the KrWG is the so-called five-level waste hierarchy to be applied by waste owners and producers in the following order of priority: 1. Avoidance, 2. Preparation for reutilisation, 3. Recycling, 4. Other form of recovery – particularly energy recovery and backfilling, 5. Disposal. One component of German waste legislation is the transfer of product responsibility to producers and distributors, who must ensure that the generation of waste is reduced during both production and use and that environmentally-sound recycling or disposal procedures are in place.

The goal of a modern recycling economy is a sustainable use of recyclable materials and the decoupling of waste volumes from economic performance, preferably a reduction in waste volumes with increasing economic growth. This goes hand-in-hand with the protection of water, soil and the climate by avoiding e.g. climate-damaging gases from landfills. In Germany, a landfill ban for untreated municipal waste has been in force since 2005.

Waste volume and waste recovery

In 2018, the gross amount of waste generated was 417.2 million tonnes and the net amount 362.3 million tonnes (without double counting). With a volume of 228.1 million tonnes, building and demolition waste accounts for slightly more than half of the total volume (approx. 55%). The volume of municipal waste, secondary waste (from waste treatment plants) and other waste, which comes mainly from production and industry, amounts to between 50.2 and 55 million tonnes (for each of the three types), well below the above volume. Around 28.8 million tonnes of waste was generated from the extraction and processing of natural resources. 338.5 million tonnes of waste were recovered in 2018, of which 290.5 million tonnes were recycled and 48.0 million tonnes were used for energy generation.2 The recovery rate for all waste types has risen steadily over the last ten years from 74.3% (2006) to 81% (2018), while the volume of waste has increased at the same time3. The recovery rate is the proportion (input) of collected waste that is fed into a material or energy recovery process.

A comprehensive network of 15,8004 pretreatment, treatment, sorting and processing plants has been established in Germany for the recycling and material recovery of waste. This network includes soil treatment plants, plants for the processing of building and demolition waste, and sorting and dismantling plants where chemical-physical, biological and mechanical treatment processes are carried out.

Examples of recycling and usage rates 5

The recycling rate for steel was approx. 95% in 2016.6 Around 18.6 million tonnes of steel scrap were used in steel production in 2018. This corresponds to a us- age rate of 43.8%.7 In 2018, around 2.53 million tonnes of non-ferrous metals (e. g. copper, aluminium, zinc, bronze, lead, brass) were produced. Approx. 1.33 million tonnes of this amount were secondary metals, which corresponds to a share of 52.5%.8
Aluminium recycling rates range from 90 to 95% depending on the sector. The energy usage for the recycling of aluminium is up to 95% lower compared to primary production9. In 2018, the usage rate was 59%. The recycling rate for copper is about 45%. In copper production 41% of recycled copper10 is used.

Paper and glass also have high recycling and usage rates, but the recycling of plastics still requires additional efforts:

• Paper/paperboard/cardboard, which is mainly collected separately, achieves a recycling rate of almost 100%. The usage rate of recovered paper is 75%. Recycling saves primary raw materials such as wood, kaolin and lime, but also water and energy. However, paper is not infinitely recyclable, since the fibres become progressively shorter during recycling.

• The recycling rate for glass collection is also almost 100%.11 However, this only applies to appropriately sorted glass. Today, every glass packaging consists of up to 60% recycled glass; for green glass the share is even at a usage rate of 90%.12 The recovery of the glass reduces the demand for the primary raw material quartz sand.

• Around 46% of the plastic waste (6.15 million tonnes) went into the material recycling process in 2017, the remainder was either recycled for energy purposes, dumped or exported. According to the agreements within the framework of the Basel Convention on Waste,13 free export should in future only be allowed for plastic waste that is contaminant-free and is easily recyclable. An export and import permit from the countries involved is required for compounds. The export of hazardous or non-recyclable waste from the EU to developing countries will be prohibited from 2021.

As far as the building sector is concerned, it is more a question of recovery rates than of recycling rates, because not all building and demolition waste has to be prepared for recycling. Of the 214.6 million tonnes of building and demolition waste generated (2016), 192.6 million tonnes or 89.8 % was recycled.14 Through the processing of mineral building waste, 72.2 million tonnes of recycled building materials were produced. These were used 52.8% in road construction, 22% in earthworks, 4.2% in other applications (mainly landfill construction) and 21% as aggregates in asphalt and concrete production.
The building and waste disposal industry thus makes an important contribution to a sustainable and resource-efficient society. Thanks to the collection, sorting and material-based and energy-related recycling of waste, this industry not only fulfils an important ecological function, it also supplies our economy with raw materials, Overall, it now provides at least 15% of the raw materials needed in Germany.15 This saves raw material imports worth €10 billion per year.84 The recycling industry also makes a significant contribution to Germany’s economic performance. It provides jobs for around 290,000 employees in some 10,800 municipal and private companies and has a turnover of around €76 billion. The gross value added amounts to €21.5 billion.16 The substitution of primary raw materials with secondary raw materials is also associated with significant savings in energy consumption.17

Future Challenges/Outlook

Germany has made a number of efforts to better close material cycles and to manage resources more sparingly. Nevertheless, there are several areas where there is potential for improvement.
For example, it is mainly the heavy, easily-recoverable raw materials and bulk metals such as iron, steel, copper, aluminium and very valuable precious metals that are recycled. In addition to the economic cost, this is also due to the systematic nature of the existing recycling rates, which contribute to neglecting the recovery of low-concentration special elements. There is a need for action and catching up, particularly with regard to the strategically-important raw materials that are needed for new technologies, the extraction of which can be problematic from a ecological and hu- man rights perspective.18 These resources are partially used in very small quantities in e.g. electrical appliances, mobile phones, computers, solar panels and circuit boards. Recovery is often not yet economically feasible, even if it is technically possible and in some cases ecologically sensible.

The objective of the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (ElektroG) is to ensure that considerably more valuable raw materials are recovered in the future from old devices in Germany – and that the collection rate of 65% specified by the EU and applicable since 2019 is fulfilled.19 This is to be achieved through specified requirements for the management of these old devices. The obligation for wholesalers with a shop area of 400 m² and more to take back old electrical and electronic equipment compacts the collection network is compacted, enabling consumers to dispose of old electrical and electronic equipment more easily and separating them from unsorted municipal waste at an early stage.

One particular problem in this context is the illegal export of old electrical and electronic equipment to e. g. Africa and Asia, since extremely high-risk situations for both humans and the environment can arise, especially if the old devices are improperly handled. The ElektroG is intended to put a stop to this, since it provides for strict criteria for the differentiation of used and old electrical equipment. According to this principle, only checked and functional used equip- ment which is adequately protected against damage during transport and which has been properly docu- mented may be exported as non-waste. The burden of proof lies with the exporter.

The EU’s 2018 recycling management package commits the member states to a number of further steps to strengthen the waste hierarchy. For example, member states must take measures to promote the re-utilisation of products. The availability of spare parts, operating manuals and technical information is also to be improved.20

1Glossary, DNR:, accessed on 15 July 2019.

2Pursuant to § 3(25) of the KrWG, material recovery (recycling) means any recycling process by means of which waste is processed into products, materials or substances, either for the original purpose or for other purposes; it includes the processing of organic materials, but not energy-related recycling. Energy-related recovery, on the other hand, means the preparation of waste for thermal recycling by means of incineration. However, a portion of the waste is also incinerated to dispose of it.

3 Destatis, Waste balance 2018, as of 2020.

4Status report of the German recycling industry 2018 (Statusbericht der deutschen Kreislaufwirtschaft 2018).

5The recycling rate (calculated on the basis of the weight of waste sent to recycling facilities) differs from the usage rate (which is the percentage of materials actually recycled and their actual use in production).

6Fraunhofer Overview (Fraunhofer Umsicht): Technical, economic, ecological and social factors of steel scrap, (Technische, ökonomische, ökologische und gesellschaftliche Faktoren von Stahlschrott), November 3, 2016.

7Steel scrap balances of the bvse and BDSV.

8Metal Trade Association (Wirtschaftsvereinigung Metalle) – Metal Statistics 2018 (Metallstatistik 2018).

9General Association of the Aluminium Industry.

10Status Report of the German Recycling Industry.

11Destatis, Waste balance 2018, as of 2020.

12Federal Association of the German Glass Industry.

13Amendment of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal on May 5, 2019.

14Recycling management, building & mineral construction waste – Monitoring 2016. (Kreislaufwirtschaft Bau, Mineralische Bauabfälle – Monitoring 2016).

15German Building Materials Association – Quarried natural resources e. V. (Bundesverband Baustoffe – Steine und Erden e.V.) (bbs), Study entitled “The demand for primary and secondary raw materials of the quarried natural resources industry in Germany until 2035” (Die Nachfrage nach Primär- und Sekundärrohstoffen der Steine-und-Erden-Industrie bis 2035 in Deutschland).

16Recycling in Germany – Wuppertal Institute study (Recycling in Deutschland – Studie Wuppertal Institut).

17Status report of the German recycling industry 2018 (Statusbericht der deutschen Kreislaufwirtschaft 2018).

18UBA study, “Material-flow oriented determination of the contribution of the secondary raw materials industry to the conservation of primary raw materials and increase in resource productivity” (Stoffstromorientierte Ermittlung des Beitrags der Sekundärrohstoffwirtschaft zur Schonung von Primärrohstoffen und Steigerung der Ressourcenproduktivität), April 2019.

19These include the 17 metals of the rare earths group such as neodymium, but also conflict raw materials such as tin, tantalum (coltan), tungsten and even platinum and lithium.

20In 2018, Germany’s collection rate was 43.1%. On average, more than 1 million tonnes p.a. of old (waste) electrical and electronic equipment are not collected in Germany or are collected improperly.