As an industrial nation, Germany is particularly de- pendent on the reliable availability of natural resources. The protection of natural resources, their economical use and the extraction of secondary natural resources (1) from waste or residues are highly important, not only for man and the environment, but also for 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 (AbfG).
Environmental pollution, the scarcity of landfill sites in the 1980s and the growing realisation that materials 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. 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 from product development and production through to 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.
The product responsibility for electric equipment will be developed further with the amendment of the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (ElektroG) and the re-adoption of the ordinance on requirements for processing old electric and electronic equipment, which came into force on 1 January 2022. The Federal Government has now extended the existing obligation of retailers of electrical equipment to include the large discounters, supermarkets and other grocery retailers with a shop area of 800 m² or more. The collection network is going to be expanded, enabling consumers to dispose of old electrical and electronic equipment more easily and separating them from unsorted municipal waste at an early stage. The processing ordinance extended the existing requirements, which were essentially geared towards the targeted removal of pollutants and contaminated products from waste, to include the goal of resource conservation and thus the increased recovery of resource-relevant substances.
With the current re-adoption of the packaging law(2), which primarily came into force on 3 July 2021, further regulations will apply in addition to the existing system of extended manufacturer responsibility that already exists in relation to packaging. For instance, from 1 January 2023 the final distributor must offer multi-use packaging alternatives when placing on the market single-use food packaging and single-use beverage cups. In addition, a mandatory minimum proportion of recycled material is planned for certain single-use plastic drink bottles and an obligation to segregate collection of certain single-use plastic bottles, which it is intended will be achieved in particular by extending deposit schemes.
With the implementation of the amendment to the ordinance prohibiting single-use plastics (EWKVerbotV) (3) the distribution of certain single-use plastic products (e.g. cutlery, plates, drinking straws, takeaway packaging and polystyrene cups) is prohibited. The aim of the prohibitions is to help to manage plastics more sustainably along the value chain, to reduce throwing away waste carelessly and to combat pollution in the sea. The single-use plastic marking ordinance (EWK- KennzV) also services these objectives. It is intended that this will help to further reduce the use of products made of single-use plastic.
The EWKKennzV stipulates that single-use plastic products must be marked to indicate that, if the product is not disposed of in the proper way, it will have negative implications for the environment.
The regulations on exporting plastic waste from the EU were tightened as of 1 January 2021 through amendments to the European Waste Shipment Regulation. The changes stem from amendments to the Basel Convention adopted in May 2019 and amendments to an OECD decision adopted in September 2020. According to these amendments and decisions, the export of hazardous plastic waste and non-hazardous plastic waste that is more difficult to recycle from the EU to non-OECD countries is prohibited. Further restrictions apply to the export of non-hazardous plastic waste that is easily recyclable from the EU to non-OECD countries in accordance with Regulation (EC) No 1418/2007.
The new substitute building materials ordinance (4), as part of umbrella ordinance, stipulates requirements that apply nationwide and are legally binding regarding the production, quality assurance and the inclusion of mineral replacement substances in certain technical structures. Mineral substitute building materials within the scope of the ordinance include recycling building materials from construction and demolition waste, slag from metal production and ashes from thermal processes. The substitute building materials ordinance assists the aims of the circular economy. The aim is also to improve acceptance for using substitute building materials. This umbrella ordinance will enter into force on 1 August 2023.
The total gross waste generation in Germany was 414.0 million tonnes in 2020, slightly down from the previous peak in 2018 (417.2 million tonnes). Construction and demolition waste accounted for 229.3 million tonnes, slightly more than half of the total gross volume (approx. 55%). The volume of municipal waste, secondary waste (from waste treatment plants) at around 51.0 million tonnes and other waste, which comes mainly from production and industry, was considerably lower at around 47.3 million tonnes. Around 28.6 million tonnes of waste was generated from the extraction and processing of natural resources.
Around 338.5 million tonnes of waste were recycled in 2020, of which 290.2 million tonnes were material and 48.3 million tonnes energy-related waste (5). In the last ten years the recycling rate for all waste has continuously increased, with a simultaneous increase of the waste quantity from 74.3% (2006) to 82% (2020). (6) The recycling rate measures the proportion (input) of the collected waste that is fed into a material or energy-related recycling process. The recycling rate, in other words, the proportion of waste recycled or prepared for reuse has remained constant over the last three years at around 70%. (7)
A new calculation method has been introduced with the amendment of the EU Waste Framework Directive. The recycling rate is no longer based on the quantity of waste sent to the recycling plants (input quantity) but instead how much material is actually recycled (output quantity, after screening out material that cannot be recycled). The recycling figures achieved according to the new procedure will only be available after June 2022.
Recycling involves processing waste so that the natural resources obtained can be used to produce new products, whereas products prepared for reuse by means of repairs and other methods are returned to be used for their original purpose. A comprehensive network of approx. 14,600 (8) pre-treatment, treatment, sorting and processing plants has been established in Germany for the recycling and, in particular, material recovery of waste. The network includes soil treatment plants, building rubble processing plants, sorting and dismantling plants (inter alia) in addition to chemical-physical, biological and mechanical treatment plants.
In 2020, 91.4% of tinplate from private final consumption was recycled in Germany.
The recycling rate for total tinplate consumption has also been stable around 90% since 2006. (10) Around 15.8 million tonnes of steel scrap were used in steel production in 2020. This corresponds to a usage rate of 44.3%. (11) In 2020, around 2.25 million tonnes of non-ferrous metals (such as copper, aluminium, zinc, bronze, lead, brass) were produced. Of this, around 1.04 million tonnes were secondary metals, corresponding to a share of around 46.3%. (12)
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 production. (13) In 2020, the usage rate was approx. 51%. (14) The recycling rate for copper is about 45%. In copper production around 44% of recycled copper (15) 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%. (16) The usage rate of recovered paper is 79%. (17) Recycling saves primary natural resources 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 so that every time this happens new fibres have to be added to the process.
- In the case of glass collection, the recycling rate also amounts to almost 100%. (18) Today, every glass packaging unit consists of up to 60 % recycled glass, and for green glass the usage rate is as high as 95%. (19) The recovery of the glass reduces the demand for the primary natural resource which is quartz sand.
- In 2020, a total of 60.6% of the packaging plastics collected via the dual systems were recycled. (20) Around 46.6% of the plastic waste (2.93 million tonnes out of 6.28 million tonnes) went into the material recycling process in 2019, the remainder was either recycled for energy purposes or dumped. (21)
- In 2020 the recycling rate for old electric devices was 86.7% and the utilisation rate was 100%. (22) However, in 2020 only 44.1% of old electric devices that had been marketed were actually collected. In order to increase this quantity and to achieve the collection rate of 65% set by the EU from 2020, (23) the Federal Government extended with the amendment to the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act the existing obligation of retailers of electrical equipment to include the large discounters, supermarkets and other grocery retailers with a shop area of 800 m² or more. As a result, the collection network is going to be expanded, enabling consumers to dispose of old electrical and electronic equipment more easily and separate them from unsorted municipal waste at an early stage.
In the building sector, around 90% of the non-hazardous mineral construction and demolition waste generated is recycled in an environmentally sound manner. The processing of mineral building waste enabled the manufacture of 73.3 million tonnes of recycled building materials. Of these 51.3% were used in road construction, 22.2% in earthworks, 4.9% in other applications (mainly landfill construction) and 21.6% 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 natural resources. Overall, it now supplies a sixth of the natural resources needed in Germany (24). The recycling industry also contributes significantly to Germany’s economic performance. It provides jobs for around 310,000 employees in nearly 11,000 municipal and private companies and has a turnover of around €85 billion. The gross value added amounts to €28 billion. (25) The substitution of primary raw materials with secondary raw materials is also associated with significant savings in energy consumption, for example. (26)
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 natural resources and bulk metals such as iron, steel, copper, aluminium and very valuable precious metals that are recycled. In addition to the economic benefits, 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 natural resources that are needed for new developments, the extraction of which can be problematic from ecological and human rights standpoints. (27) They 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 sometimes technically possible and in some cases ecologically sensible. The aim must be to continue to foster research and development and, above all, to ensure that new processes and technologies come onto the market.
A very resource-intensive sector of the economy is the building and construction sector. In terms of quantity, not only is the consumption of natural resources very high here, but the largest and most relevant waste streams can be found in this sector. Although more than 90% of these quantities are already recycled today, this type of recycling is usually not a high-grade recycling, but a use in landfill construction, for backfilling excavations or as a substructure in road construction. Gypsum-based construction waste is even predominantly dumped in landfills, although gypsum is particularly well suited for use in a closed material cycle. Overall, the opportunities for higher-value use of construction waste, e.g. as an aggregate material for concrete in building construction, are thus hardly used; there is still potential for development here.
In the coalition agreement, the coalition partners have undertaken to promote the circular economy as an effective climate and resource protection, opportunity for sustainable economic development and jobs. In this context, the goal of reducing primary raw material consumption and creating closed material cycles was agreed. To this end, the existing legal framework is to be adapted, clear goals must be defined and waste legislation reviewed. Furthermore, existing natural resources policies are to be bundled in a “National Circular Economy Strategy”. The National Circular Economy Strategy (NKWS) is to be developed in a broad discussion process within the Federal Government, with social stakeholders and the scientific community. This process is supported by a research project. The dialogue process with broad stakeholder involvement is to start in spring 2023 and the strategy is to be adopted in 2024. The natural resources strategy and the circular economy strategy should be closely interlinked and complement each other. The natural resources strategy supports companies in ensuring a secure, responsible and sustainable supply of natural resources, including the use of secondary resources. Besides, it should be examined whether supporting or supplementary financing instruments can secure demand for recycling natural resources and bring these technologies to the market in a timely manner through suitable investments.
The EU’s Circular Economy Package of 2018, as well as the design of the Commission’s 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan, oblige the member states to take many other measures to strengthen the waste hierarchy and the circular economy. 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.
(1) DNR: Glossary. URL: https://www.dnr.de/rohstoffpolitik-20/glossar/grundbegriffe/primaer-und-sekundaerrohstoffe/ [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(2) Law on implementing the requirements of the Single-Use Plastics Directive and the Waste Framework Directive in the packaging and other laws dated 9 June 2021.
(3) Ordinance prohibiting the placing on the market of certain single-use plastic products and products made from oxo-degradable plastic (EWKVerbotV) dated 24 June 2021.
(4) Ordinance on requirements to include mineral substitute building materials in technical structures (ErsatzbaustoffV) dated 9 July 2021.
(5) For the purposes of this Act, material recovery shall mean any recovery operation other than energy recovery and processing into materials intended for use as fuel or other means of energy production. Material recovery includes, in particular, preparation for reuse, recycling and backfilling (§3 (23a) KrWG). Energy-related recovery, on the other hand, means the preparation of waste for thermal recovery by means of incineration. However, a portion of the waste is also incinerated to dispose of it.
(6) Destatis (2022): Waste Balance 2020. URL: https://www.destatis.de/DE/Themen/Gesellschaft-Umwelt/Umwelt/Abfallwirtschaft/Publikationen/Downloads-Abfallwirtschaft/abfallbilanz-pdf-5321001.pdf? blob=publicationFile [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(7) Destatis (2022): Waste Balance 2020.
(8) Federal Association of the German Waste Disposal, Water and natural resources Industry (BDE) (2020): Status report of the German recycling industry2020 (Statusbericht der deutschen Kreislaufwirtschaft 2020). URL: https://www.bde.de/themen/statusbericht-kreislaufwirtschaft/ [Accesssed on 9 December 2022].
(9) The 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).
(10) Trade association for scrap, e-scrap and vehicle recycling (bvse) (2022): Recycling News. URL: https://www.bvse.de/schrott-elektronikgeraete- recycling/nachrichten-schrott-eschrott-kfz/8234-weissblechverpackungen-aus-privatem-endverbrauch-zu-91-4-prozent-stofflich-recycelt.html [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(11) Steel and steel scrap foreign trade association: Statistical Report 2021. URL: https://www.stahl-online.de/wp-content/uploads/2111-Statistischer-Bericht- Stahlschrott.pdf [Accessed on 23 September 2022].
(12) Metal Trade Association (Wirtschaftsvereinigung Metalle) (2020): Metal Statistics 2020. URL: https://www.wvmetalle.de/presse/alle-publikationen/artikeldetail/?tx_artikel_feartik el%5Bfile%5D=e4ce262942322d1d9c622a02d74ca25da153e069&tx_artikel_feartikel%5Bsrc%5D=7990&tx_artikel_feartikel%5Baction%5D=download& [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(13) General Association of the Aluminium Industry: Recycling from the outset. URL: http://www.aluinfo.de/kreislaufwirtschaft.html [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(14) Metal Trade Association (Wirtschaftsvereinigung Metalle) (2020): Metal Statistics 2020.
(15) Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) (2021): Natural Resources Situation 2020. URL: https://www.bgr.bund.de/DE/Themen/Min_rohstoffe/Downloads/rohsit-2020.pdf? blob=publicationFile&v=4%20/ [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(16) Destatis (2022): Waste Balance 2020.
(17) German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) (2022): https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/daten/ressourcen-abfall/verwertung-entsorgung-ausgewaehlter-abfallarten/altpapier#vom-papier-zum-altpapier [Accessed on 23 September 2022].
(18) Destatis (2022): Waste Balance 2020.
(19) Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (2020): Energy transition in industry. Potential and interactions with the energy sector. Glass industry fact sheet. URL: https://www.bmwk.de/Redaktion/DE/Downloads/E/energiewende-in-der-industrie-ap2a-branchensteck-brief-glas.pdf? blob=publicationFile&v=4 [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(20) Stiftung Zentrale Stelle Verpackungsregister: Recycling Rate Analysis 2018-2020. URL: https://www.verpackungsregister.org/fileadmin/Auswer-tungen/ZSVR_Auswertungen_Recyclingquoten_2018_-_2020.pdf [Accessed on 23 September 2022].
(21) German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) (2022): Plastic waste. URL: https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/daten/ressourcen-abfall/verwertung-entsorgung-ausge- waehlter-abfallarten/kunststoffabfaelle [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(22) Destatis (2022): 11.2% more WEEE recycled in 2020. URL: https://www.destatis.de/DE/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/2022/02/ PD22_058_321.html#:~:text=Die%20Recyclingquote%2C%20also%20der%20Anteil,%2C2%20%25%20mehr%20als%202019 [Accessed on 23 September 2022].
(23) German Federal Environment Agency (UBA): Electrical waste: Germany fell just below the EU collection rate of 45%. URL: https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/ presse/pressemitteilungen/elektroschrott-deutschland-verfehlt-eu-sammelquote [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(24) German Building Materials Association – Quarried natural resources (2016): Study “The demand for primary and secondary natural resources of the quarried natural resources industry until 2035 in Germany” URL: https://www.baustoffindustrie.de/fileadmin/user_upload/bbs/Dateien/2016-04-07_BBS_Rohstoffstudie.pdf [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(25) BDE (2020): Status report of the German recycling industry 2020.
(26) German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) (2019): Material flow-oriented determination of the contribution of the secondary raw materials industry to the conservation of primary raw materials and the increase of resource productivity. URL: https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/1410/publikationen/2019-03-27_ texte_34-2019_sekundaerrohstoffwirtschaft.pdf [Accessed on 9 December 2022].
(27) These include the 17 metals of the rare earth group such as neodymium, but also conflict raw materials such as tin, tantalum (coltan), tungsten or even platinum and lithium.