Circular Economy in Germany - Henning Wilts Interview


Surprise, Surprise: Germany is not that Circular

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.”

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.”

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.”

Circular Change