Why people waste garbage
Avoid, recycle, dispose of - dealing with waste
How we deal with waste is one of the most discussed environmental issues. In recent years, for example, plastic waste has come to the fore, especially plastic waste in the sea and microplastics. The awareness of the problem is high. Many people try to avoid waste or to support recycling through correct waste separation.
Some people even try not to produce any waste at all in their everyday lives. Numerous blogs can be found on the Internet, mostly with experience reports and practical tips for avoiding waste.
The manufacture of all the products and consumer goods that we use and consume in everyday life is complex. This requires resources, i.e. raw materials and energy. But almost everything that we surround ourselves with turns into waste at some point, which has to be disposed of again at great expense.
Each and every individual in Germany generates around 457 kilograms of household waste per year. This includes residual waste, organic waste, recyclable materials, bulky waste and other waste such as old electrical appliances, batteries and paint. In 2019, according to calculations by the Federal Statistical Office, a total of 38 million tons of waste was collected. To imagine the amount of waste, here is a comparison: A heavy truck with a trailer can transport up to 40 tons in Germany and measures a maximum of 18.75 meters. If you were to distribute the German "mountain of rubbish" on trucks, you would need 950,000 trucks. Lined up in a row, they would extend roughly from Germany to New Zealand.
There is a growing awareness among many people that the earth's resources are limited and that our waste harms the environment, people and the climate. Even if hardly any waste is buried in landfills in Germany, disposal pollutes the environment. That is why politicians and consumers rely on the sustainable handling of waste and recyclable materials.
How is the environment polluted by waste?
Waste is a global problem because it pollutes the environment in a variety of ways. Plastic waste, which is usually colloquially referred to as plastic, contributes significantly to environmental pollution. In the media, for example, pictures of large amounts of plastic in the oceans can be seen again and again. Plastics threaten the life of the animals that live in and from the sea. For example, researchers find a lot of plastic in the stomachs of sea birds. The animals starve to death with a full stomach.
Large-scale production of plastics did not begin until the 1950s. Since then, production has increased enormously. Over 400 million tons of plastics are produced worldwide every year, more than a third of them for packaging.
Globally, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled, often downcycling to inferior products. 40 percent of the used packaging ends up in landfills - this has been banned in Germany since 2005 - and 14 percent in waste incineration plants. The remaining 32 percent ends up in the environment, oceans and other bodies of water.
The disposal of obsolete electronic devices such as smartphones, televisions or household appliances also has a similar environmental impact. Household appliances are often replaced even though they are still fully functional. The reasons are often more up-to-date models and the ever faster development of new software that can no longer be used by old smartphones and computers. If something breaks, it is not repaired, but bought new. New products are often cheaper than costly repairs. As a result, waste electrical and electronic equipment is the fastest growing mountain of waste in the world.
However, this "electronic waste" contains - mostly in very small quantities - numerous valuable raw materials such as rare earths and precious metals. Under difficult working conditions and disastrous effects on the environment, these are mostly mined in very poor countries. Rainforests have to give way to mines for raw materials, the use of chemicals to extract the ores contaminates water and soil. This as well as other waste thus carry an ecological rucksack. This could be reduced the more waste is avoided, for example because broken electrical devices are repaired and reused instead of being thrown away and replaced with new ones.
What happens to the garbage? The "waste hierarchy"
Conserving resources and avoiding negative environmental impacts is the goal of waste management in Germany today. It is laid down in the Circular Economy Act. According to this, there are priorities when dealing with waste, the so-called waste hierarchy. The top priority here is that waste should be avoided from the outset as far as possible. Recycling is also intended to protect the environment and resources. Whereas in the past a large part of the waste ended up in landfills, landfilling is now the last option.
The five levels of the waste hierarchy at a glance:
- Waste avoidance: The best waste is that which does not arise, because the preparation for reuse (for example through repair) and the recycling of waste also cost energy. Reuse is an important part of avoidance: this includes reusable systems, for example for beverage packaging. Passing on, giving away or selling also helps to avoid waste (second-hand clothing, old vehicles, etc.).
- Preparation for reuse: If something has already become waste, the waste should be treated in such a way that it can be reused. For this purpose, products or components of products are checked, cleaned or repaired. In this way, these products are prepared in such a way that they can be used again for the same purpose for which they were originally intended without further pre-treatment. One example is the sorting, cleaning and repair of clothing from collection containers, which among other things can be donated after treatment.
- Recycling: According to the Recycling Management Act, recycling is any recovery process by which waste is processed into products or materials for the original purpose or for other purposes. In this way, raw materials are brought back into the cycle. The recovery of raw materials costs energy, and in some cases new raw materials are also required to manufacture the new products. Examples of recycling are products made from recycled waste paper or the so-called bottle-to-bottle recycling of plastic bottles.
- "Other recovery": This includes in particular energy recovery. This means the incineration of waste, which generates electricity and heat.
- Waste disposal: Waste may only be disposed of if none of the other four measures can be applied. Remaining substances, such as poisonous dust from filter systems, must be stored as waste for disposal in well-secured, mostly underground permanent storage facilities. These must be equipped with safety devices to prevent toxic seepage water from contaminating the soil and groundwater.
The so-called product responsibility has been anchored in the Recycling Act as a fundamental principle. This means that manufacturers are fundamentally responsible for their products over their entire lifespan. They should design products in such a way that they are technically durable and repairable and that individual parts or the entire product can be reused. The nonetheless generated waste should be able to be recycled as high as possible or disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner.
There are already a number of specific regulations that go back to product stewardship. Companies are obliged to collect or take back and recycle different types of products. This includes packaging, batteries, old cars, waste oil and electrical and electronic equipment.
For some types of waste and materials there are specific requirements for recycling in the EU. For example, from 2025 at least 65 percent of packaging waste across the EU will have to be recycled; there are specific recycling quotas for paper, metal, plastic, wood and glass.
The EU is actively on the way to a circular economy: In March 2020 the EU Commission published the circular economy action plan as an important component of the European Green Deal. The plan contains numerous measures to accelerate the transition to a resource-efficient and circular economy in the EU: including the increased use of recyclates, a right of consumers to repair electrical and IT equipment and a more stable and more environmentally friendly device design. In 2021, the EU Commission will revise various legal provisions that are relevant to strengthening the circular economy.
What measures is Germany implementing?
The overriding goal is: Get out of the throwaway society! To this end, various political measures have been introduced, for example towards less superfluous packaging, fewer products to throw away, less waste and more recycling. Waste is a valuable raw material. If these raw materials are used effectively, they can conserve our natural resources. The Federal Government and the EU have therefore initiated numerous laws and ordinances.
Avoiding waste saves resources and protects people and the environment. Therefore, it is best if waste does not arise in the first place. This is why the federal government, with the participation of the federal states, decided to update the waste prevention program in January 2021. Waste avoidance in Germany is thus being further developed. The program names the goals of the federal environmental policy for waste prevention and makes it clear that waste avoidance is a task for society as a whole, which can only succeed if all actors take part in it on their own responsibility.
Recycle more, waste less: At the beginning of 2019, the Packaging Act came into force to reduce packaging waste and strengthen recycling. The recycling rates have been increased significantly. Manufacturers of packaging that can be easily recycled or that are made from recycled plastic are now saving costs. The deposit requirement has also been expanded. The law also stipulates that retailers must indicate on the shelves whether beverages are being offered in non-returnable or returnable bottles.
Straws, cotton swabs, disposable dishes, plastic balloon holders and to-go cups are products that end up in the environment particularly frequently. There are already environmentally friendly alternatives. These disposable products will be banned across Europe from July 3, 2021.
Goodbye plastic bags: from January 2022, lightweight, single-use plastic carrier bags will also be banned. Because around 1.6 billion plastic bags are still used in Germany every year. Exceptions are particularly light plastic carrier bags, so-called "shirt bags". They are available in supermarkets and ensure the hygienic handling of open and perishable food such as meat or sausage products. So far there is no good alternative for this purpose. Therefore, as a result of a ban, more (pre) packaging might come onto the market, which would lead to an increase in packaging waste. Since "shirt bags" serve the hygienic handling of the purchased products, they also prevent food waste. An agreement with retailers has been in place since 2016 to only offer plastic carrier bags against payment. The consumption of plastic bags has decreased by more than 60 percent since 2015.
Obligation to repair: Electrical and electronic devices are used for significantly less time than they were a few years ago, even if they are still fully functional. This was the result of an investigation by the Federal Environment Agency. The investigation also showed that a noticeable number of devices are replaced because of a defect, even if they have not been in use for a long time. A new EU regulation now makes manufacturers of refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, televisions and similar products responsible. Since March 2021, stricter requirements for the repairability of their products have applied. The new ecodesign regulations of the EU stipulate that in future manufacturers will have to keep spare parts in stock for a certain period of time and design the products in such a way that they can be repaired with conventional tools. Repair information must also be provided.
Labeling and nature of single-use plastic products: In the future, hygiene articles such as sanitary towels, tampons and wet wipes, tobacco products and to-go cups will have to carry a label that informs consumers about the negative effects of plastic in the environment. The label indicates which disposal route should be avoided and the environmental consequences of improper disposal. In the future, plastic bottles and lids must be firmly connected to one another so that the lids are prevented from being carelessly thrown away after the container has been opened.
The aim of the political measures is to avoid and eliminate unnecessary plastic. Wherever single-use plastic cannot be avoided, solutions that are as environmentally friendly and recyclable as possible must be promoted. Many citizens support this goal and want a sustainable society without plastic cups, microplastics and littered cities.
What can consumers do?
Consumption habits play a major role in the generation of waste. Some simple tips for shopping help to reduce your own contribution to the "throwaway society". Above all, this includes avoiding packaging waste as much as possible:
- Buying loose goods instead of lavishly packaged products. More and more “unpackaged shops” are opening up and offering goods without packaging.
- Buy drinks in reusable packaging.
- Prefer refill packs.
The principle of "using instead of owning" can also help save resources in some areas. One example is car sharing: on average, private cars are only moved for a short time a day. The shared use of vehicles could help limit the enormous use of resources in their manufacture.
The use of recycling exchanges or exchange platforms on the Internet can also help to save resources. Second-hand online shops or neighborhood networks where you can borrow drills or give away children's clothing are good for the environment.
The possibilities are manifold - suggestions provide numerous advice, such as the website for waste prevention of the Federal Environment Ministry and the brochure Appreciating instead of throwing away - concepts and ideas for waste prevention.
Federal Environment Ministry: Appreciate instead of throwing away
Federal Environment Ministry: Statistics on individual areas of waste management
Federal Environment Agency: Recycling and disposal of selected types of waste
Statistical Office of the European Union: Waste (in English)
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