Surprise, Surprise: Germany is not that Circular
Interview with Henning Wilts
The contradictions of a Country that considers 100% recycled a landfilled smartphone and – in its industries – uses 85% of virgin raw materials while boasting strict rules and regulations regarding waste which are correctly implemented and an energy efficiency programme.
The Germany you would not expect. Despite being Europe’s number one manufacturing power and world-renowned for its strict waste management policy (since 2005, for example, putting waste which is not pretreated into landfills has been prohibited), when it comes to developing the circular economy, it is anything but a pacesetter. So says Henning Wilts, head of the prestigious Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy’s circular economy sector. “We are probably moving in the right direction, but we are doing it too slowly. We are too proud of our ability to manage waste,” he explains.
“Politicians think we resolved the problem in the 80s and the 90s, so they do not see what we need to change today. In reality, Germany has no systematic strategy for the circular economy. We have laws on waste, a programme for energy efficiency and one for sustainable consumption, but they are not coordinated. We have not set specific objectives to be achieved, nor do we have an authority of reference or a monitoring system.”
Specifically, what are Germany’s other weaknesses?
“The unsatisfying recovery of secondary raw materials. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are much more advanced than us in terms of using secondary raw materials obtained from waste recycling in industry. Germany acquires enormous quantities of energy from incineration, but, in doing so, it burns material that could be recovered and reused. 15% of the materials that we use in industry comes from recycling processes, while the other 85% is raw material. This is a long way away from the circular economy.”
15% of the materials that we use in industry comes from recycling processes, while the other 85% is raw material. This is a long way away from the circular economy.
However, the official statistics attribute your country extremely high recycling percentages.
“That is because, statistically, energy recovery is included in recycling percentages. A smartphone that ends up in the incinerator is considered 100% recycled, but, actually, no material has been recovered. Another problem is waste produced in construction-industry demolition. It is over 90% recycled, however, it is not reused as construction material but rather to construct soundproof motorway barriers. Only 3% of cement is recovered. This means that 97% raw materials are used for every new building.”
Another problem is waste produced in construction-industry demolition. It is over 90% recycled, however, it is not reused as construction material but rather to construct soundproof motorway barriers. Only 3% of cement is recovered. This means that 97% raw materials are used for every new building.
In this critical context, what are Germany’s strengths?
“Without a doubt, its infrastructures in the waste industry sector. In the 90s, our country set environmental safety standards for incinerators so high that today those living in their vicinities have no related health problems. And the people accepted them, unlike what is happening in France and Italy, as far as I can see. Even I would feel safer living near an incinerator rather than any other type of industrial plant.
A further strong point are the waste sorting systems, which also handle biodegradable waste – still a problem for other countries. Specifically, Germans are proud of their waste sorting systems for handling packaging. Whether this always make sense or not is another matter. Monitoring is also quite strict, so our collection system does not involve illegality or dangers for the environment and health.”
And what does the future hold for Germany’s circular economy?
“A lot will depend on Europe and the circular economy package currently being discussed. Germany is continuing to display somewhat careful behaviour, considering it preferable to not set specific objectives before having clarified how to measure performances, for example, in terms of material recovery and reducing waste production. If Europe decides to set ambitious objectives, Germany will reflect on how to move forward. In any case, the question remains as to whether the circular economy is an economic or environmental project. We, at Wuppertal Institute, have performed a study on the carpet industry. This study proves that, due to the quantities of chemical product used to recover old fibres, the recycling process has a greater environmental impact than producing new carpet with virgin material. That is why it is of primary importance to set European guidelines for the ecodesign of products depending on the sustainable environmental recovery of materials at the end of their lives. I fear, however, that it will take us at least ten years to get there and that is too long…”
What do you think of the EU circular economy package?
“… Next question, please. More than 1,200 comments have been filed by member states. Nobody knows how it is going to turn out. I am worried about the fact that we will have to reach compromises and these will triumph over the ambition of its objectives. Countries like Bulgaria or Romania cannot afford high percentages of material recovery, so the need to find a break-even point between them and Germany will reduce the drive towards significant amounts of recycling.”
In which European countries is the circular economy most developed?
“Great Britain. They did not used to invest in waste management. They made wide use of landfills. Nowadays, they are considering whether to invest billions into incineration plants or to use the money directly to develop the circular economy. And it is precisely because their starting conditions are so negative that the British are so enthusiastic. While France is leading the electrical appliance and furniture sector. The law obliges producers to supply spare parts for a period of ten years from product sale. This measure has considerable costs. That is unthinkable in Germany.”
Moving on to more general considerations on the circular economy, you wrote that there are still questions to be answered and theoretical aspects to be investigated.
“The circular economy is often wrongly associated with the chance to use enormous quantities of raw materials and material goods as we please, providing this occurs within this closed-cycle productive model, where materials are recovered. Actually, every extraction of natural resources causes irreversible damages to the environment. Furthermore, the idea that we can recycle anything is not true. There are inevitably qualitative and quantitative material losses in recycling processes. That is not all. For many materials, the treatment and recovery technologies are not yet available, and we should not take for granted that industry will adopt them. On these grounds, the first objective should be to reduce resource use as much as possible. This approach to efficient, rational use is not enough. The total quantity of raw materials that we extract from the Earth is growing exponentially. According to statistics, Germany has reduced this extraction, but at the expense of offloading the impact of production of goods which we use on the environmental balance of other countries. Vietnam, for example, supplies us electronic products with a high content in precious resources whose extraction has serious repercussions on the environment.”
You also wrote that the theory of the complete closing of the circle contradicts the principles of thermodynamics.
“According to physicists, entropy is not remedied via recycling. The chaos human beings create in the natural world through their actions cannot be cancelled, nor will natural systems return to the status quo ante with recycling processes.
Another controversial aspect which permeates the circular economy regards its compatibility with the high safety standards in force regarding waste. In the past, the priority was to develop technologies and processes that guaranteed safe waste disposal. Today the question is: do we want to continue to live without running any risk, or are we more interested in recycling as if there were no tomorrow because it is economically advantageous? A new balance must be sought and recycling is not the answer.”
Public institutions, industry, consumers: what role do they play in the circular economy?
“In the future, our basic need is for these different players to collaborate more closely together. Let us begin at ministerial level with those who handle waste management, those who handle consumer goods legislation, those who handle consumer safety and those who handle secondary raw material who all work separately from each other. The same thing happens with the European Union. The DG Environment endorses waste combustion in order to overcome our dependency on carbon and gas imports from Russia and other countries. At the same time, the waste unit believes that material recovery must have priority over incineration. Two opposite points of view within the same body. While the legislative frame remains so contradictory, the industry will not begin investing in favour of the circular economy. And it is still asking: let us know what we need to do with our waste first – should we burn it or not? Working in a team was not easy in the linear economy, but if we are going to move to a circular economy all the different elements must move in step with the beat.”
Even if the regulatory context is so contradictory, what should/could the industry do?
“If we really want to leave the linear economy, the business model we have to aim for is offering a service in the place of sale of goods. In the German automobile industry, the most important producers offer car sharing services, since entire purchasing categories in Germany, like the under-30s, no longer wish to purchase a car which has lost that status symbol aura. Sharing is the model which should be invested in. This is what the industry is thinking about. The problem is that investments supporting innovation grow stagnant, while we await clear law dispositions and regulations.”
Does this situation involve other countries other than Germany?
“The situation is extremely problematic in Germany. You see it from the reduction in the number of patents filed annually. In a certain sense, Germany has got by thanks to innovation and investments made in the waste industry in the 80’s and 90’s. We know fine well how to eliminate waste, but in terms of recovery and the circular economy we are behind. On the other hand, in southeast Asia the industry knows the context its moving in with a view to the future. And while Europe does not want to remain behind, it needs to adapt to the new priorities.”
Personally I am against offloading the responsibility on consumers.
What contribution can we give consumers?
“Personally I am against offloading the responsibility on consumers. We need to consider the whole context. However, the criticism, for example, about buying clothes that cost next to nothing which need to be thrown out a couple of months later, is legitimate. The same thing is happening in Germany with the boom of disposable printers which cost 35 euros, i.e. less than the price of a toner. You use them to print, for example, invitations to your wedding or some event and they are thrown away after a couple of weeks when the ink runs out. Changing prevalent consumption models, preferring access to a service like car sharing over buying a car, sharing consumer goods… these are options which save us money. But in order to give up our routine disposable consumption trend we must reflect on our own behaviour models. It does not happen automatically.”
Henning Wilts, Germany on the road to a circular economy? 2016
Wuppertal Institut, wupperinst.org/en
Top Image: ©Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy