The recycling of materials and products will thus steadily become more important in the 21st century. Economic experts see closed material cycles as an ecologically – and economically – efficient way of simultaneously limiting the use of primary raw materials and assuring lasting economic development. The model for the closed-cycle economy which makes companies responsible for their products from cradle to grave has proved to be a viable solution in the past few years in Germany and Europe.
In an economic system like this, which conserves natural resources, packaging waste from households, trade and industry is returned to the production loop. This means that recycling will continue to be a key to sustainable development in the coming years.
Packaging recycling as pioneer work
In Germany, this concept was pioneered by the packaging sector, in which the idea of sustainable management took concrete shape as early as 1991 with the introduction of the German Packaging Ordinance.
In fact, the prototype of a functioning closed-cycle economy was created by Duales System Deutschland AG which organises the nationwide collection, sorting and recovery of used sales packaging on behalf of industry and under the control of the state.
The figures speak for themselves: In 2000, the Germans collected around 5.7 million tonnes of used sales packaging. This more or less corresponds to the previous year´s result.
The per capita collection amounted to 78.3 kilogrammes in the year 2000 and, as such, was slightly higher than in 1999.
Organiser of modern resources management
In the course of the previous year, Duales System Deutschland AG set itself ambitious new targets. It intends to make the eco-efficiency with which packaging marked with the Green Dot is recycled completely transparent in future.
To this end, it has developed a new instrument – the resources balance, which clearly illustrates how packaging recycling can help to conserve natural resources. The resources balance for the year 2000 initially includes an energy efficiency analysis for plastic recycling within the framework of the Dual System.
The objective is to determine the average energy saving achieved as a result of the recycling of plastic packaging marked with the Green Dot. The analysis is consequently based on the amount of primary energy required to produce new goods which are replaced by recycled products.
Thanks to the recycling of 589,000 tonnes of plastic packaging, around 20 billion megajoules (MJ) of primary energy were saved in Germany in the year 2000: This is equivalent to 34.4 MJ per kilogramme! All 48 million mobile phone owners in Germany could telephone for twelve years without interruption with the electricity produced from this.
Another example: All private households in Berlin could be supplied with electricity for about 130 days per year with the energy saved in this way. The figures also show that the energy saving target of 40 MJ/kg the Dual System set itself in the medium term is a thoroughly realistic goal.
In future, the Dual System intends to include further ecological parameters and all packaging materials in the resources balance. For instance, the assessment will then include the CO 2 reduction potential in order to show how recycling contributes to climate protection.
The new guidelines also take account of recycling and recovery. Wolfram Brück, CEO of Duales System Deutschland AG, explains: “Our attitude to the ongoing development of collection and recovery channels for used packaging and consumer goods is open-minded and unbiased. We support a mix of mechanical and feedstock recycling and energy recovery – in dependence on the ecological benefit.”
In the plastic sector, the Dual System is promoting process and product innovations in order to lower costs while improving the ecological standards. What is decisive for the selection of a specific recovery channel is its ecological benefit. To this end, life cycle assessments document that recycling is far more environment-friendly than energetic disposal in waste incineration plants.
The Green Dot in Europe
The know-how and experience that have been accumulated in one decade of successful waste management are also being made available internationally. To date, twelve European countries are using the Green Dot trademark. Norway, Latvia and the Czech Republic were the first non-EU states to introduce the Green Dot in the year 2000. Hungary joined in April 2001.
The most widely used trademark in the world, the Green Dot is meanwhile found on more than 460 billion pieces of packaging and, in addition, guarantees the free movement of trade in 170 countries thanks to trademark protection.
The awareness of the need for global conservation of resources is growing. Quite apart from the development of recycling in Europe, this is demonstrated by the resolutions of Agenda 21 which contain explicit demands for waste reduction and recycling. These appeals are in agreement with the maxim of the Dual System: Protecting nature safeguards man’s basis of existence. And resource-conserving recycling makes a vital contribution to this.
©OECD Observer No 226/227, Summer 2001