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Waste Policy

Background: The development of waste policy in Germany

A good twenty years ago, it was feared that we were doomed to choke on our own waste. It looked as if the waste disposal sites in Germany were going to overflow. There were too few waste incineration plants. At first public and political interest was focussed on making disposal sites safer and waste incineration plants cleaner. Inspired by community groups, politicians soon adopted regulations for dealing with various kinds of waste, placed strict limits on emissions from waste incineration plants and established guidelines for waste disposal sites. Billions were invested in environmentally sound waste disposal.

It was soon recognized that safe disposal is not enough. Resources also had to be utilised by recycling waste, and waste avoidance had to be given the highest priority. The best way to accomplish that was for waste producers to be held responsible.

Producer responsibility was thus established. This calls for creating the prerequisites for effective and environmentally sound waste avoidance and recovery already in the production stage. Producers and distributors must design their products in such a way as to reduce waste occurrence and allow environmentally sound recovery and disposal of the residual substances, both in the production of the goods and in their subsequent use.

Producer responsibility was first laid down in 1991 in the Packaging Ordinance. It includes the obligation to take back packaging after use.

The Closed Cycle Management Act of 1996 comprehensively extended these policies. According to the Act, producer responsibility can be implemented through legislation (laws, ordinances, administrative regulations) as well as through voluntary commitments on the part of the producers and distributors.

With these policies Germany has successfully established a modern waste and closed cycle management system with a significant positive impact on the protection of soil, water and above all general health. At a time when we can see clearly that resources are not available in unlimited supply and that combating climate change is one of the great challenges of our age, waste management is making a significant contribution to climate action. The successes of modern waste management in the field of climate action have been spectacular. Over the last 15 years the emission of greenhouse gas pollutants from waste management has been reduced by 30 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year.

Currently over 250,000 people are employed in waste management, an economic sector with revenues of around 50 billion euros.

Germany's waste recovery rates are the highest in the world and show how the waste management industry contributes to sustainable economic production in the country by saving raw materials and primary energy. Almost 57% of municipal waste and 58% of production waste is recycled. Some kinds of waste have even higher recycling rates, for example, 86% for construction waste, around 80% for packaging, 82% for batteries and around 80% for graphic paper.

The German government's environmental target is to further develop waste and closed cycle management into a materials flow management over the coming years. By strictly separating wastes, pre-treatment, recycling and the recovery of energy, Germany aims to make full use of substances and materials bound in wastes and therefore making the landfilling of wastes superfluous.

The various legal regulations

Regulations for product groups - waste avoidance and high recovery rates

Regulations for product groups - waste avoidance and high recovery rates

In accordance with the product responsibility of the producers and distributors, there are now regulations or laws for packaging, batteries, end-of-life vehicles, and waste oils. There are also voluntary commitments by industry, for example concerning waste paper and construction waste.

Today, Germany leads the world in the recovery rates it achieves.

Regulations for trade and industry waste - more recovery, less disposal

Regulations for trade and industry waste - more recovery, less disposal

Legal regulations were adopted with the goal of reducing the amount of waste requiring disposal, preventing falsely declared recovery of waste and promoting environmentally sound waste recovery instead. These regulations lay down guidelines concerning materials and procedures for various kinds of production waste:

  • On 1 February 2007, the Act for Simplification of Supervision under Laws Pertaining to Waste Management and the ordinance of the same name entered into force (Federal Law Gazette part I, no.34, pp. 1619-1625). Both sets of rules aim at reducing the bureaucratic burden placed on waste authorities in supervising the proper disposal of waste. This both provides the sector with relief in the form of reduced bureaucracy and at the same time increases the efficiency of supervision under laws pertaining to waste management. In the future modern communication technologies are to be used to collect and store monitoring data.
  • The Ordinance on the Management of Waste Wood, which entered into force on 1 March 2003, laid down requirements for the recycling, energy recovery and disposal of waste wood.
  • The Commercial Wastes Ordinance, which entered into force on 1 January 2003, increased the requirements placed on the recovery of municipal solid wastes and certain types of construction and demolition waste by stipulating better separation and more effective pre-treatment. The goal is to recover energy and material from this waste without harmful effects at as high a standard as possible.
  • The Ordinance on Underground Waste Stowage, which entered into force on 30 October 2002 and was amended in August 2004, laid down nationwide, legally binding requirements for the environmentally sound use of waste as backfill underground for the first time.

Regulations for municipal solid wastes - beginning 1 June 2005, no more disposal of untreated waste

Regulations for municipal solid wastes - beginning 1 June 2005, no more disposal of untreated waste

The disposal of municipal waste (i.e. household waste) is governed by the Technical Instructions on Waste from Human Settlements and the regulations of 1 March 2001 on the storage of municipal waste and on biological treatment plants, in accordance with which the landfilling of untreated waste has been banned since 1 June 2005. Thermal and high-grade mechanical-biological processes are recognised as pre-treatment procedures.

The first day of June 2005 was an important cut-off date and introduced a new era in municipal waste disposal: since then only pre-treated municipal waste may be stored in landfills.

There are numerous existing contaminated sites from previously landfilled untreated waste that are harmful to the environment and will have to be cleaned-up by future generations at great expense. This poses not only a risk to groundwater and soil, it is also a significant source of the greenhouse gas methane and is thus responsible for around a quarter of methane emissions in Germany. Methane's impact on the climate is 21 times higher than carbon dioxide. In the future, landfills will not be a significant source of methane. The equivalent of more than 46 million tonnes of CO2 can be saved. That is also a significant contribution to fulfilling Germany's climate targets within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol. In addition to this, treating the waste increases the use of recyclable materials from household waste as well as the energy contained in it, thus saving valuable resources.

In order to close organic material cycles as well, there are also regulations such as the Ordinance on Biowastes and the Sewage Sludge Ordinance.

Waste disposal

Waste disposal

Standards for landfill operation have also become more stringent. The Landfill Ordinance, which entered into force on 1 August 2002, ensures that in the long term no adverse effects on people and the environment will arise from landfill waste. This applies to landfills for household waste and particularly to special waste landfills. The standards concerning waste acceptance set out in the ordinance were extended on 1 February 2007. Compliance with these standards was obligatory for all landfills starting in 2009. The landfills for which compliance is not possible have been being phased out since 2005.

The Landfill Recovery Ordinance, which entered into force on 1 September 2005, was designed to end bogus recycling schemes in landfills. It stipulates under which conditions and in what form waste can be used in the establishment, operation and closure of above-ground landfills.

Um einer Scheinverwertung von Abfällen auf Deponien ein Ende zu machen, ist am 1. September 2005 die Deponieverwertungsverordnung in Kraft getreten. Sie regelt unter welchen Voraussetzungen und in welcher Form Abfälle bei der Errichtung, dem Betrieb und der Stillegung von oberirdischen Deponien eingesetzt werden dürfen. 

Areas of responsibility in the field of waste disposal

  • In general, the municipal waste collection services are responsible for household waste from private households.
  • There are separate return systems for certain product groups, such as packaging, returnable bottles, waste paper, batteries, waste oil, bio-waste, and - since 24 March 2006 - also waste electrical and electronic equipment.
  • In the area of commercial waste, the producers of the waste are held directly responsible and must dispose of the waste themselves or charge competent private disposal companies with doing so. In some of Germany's Länder this responsibility has been transferred to Länder-level companies, which then work to ensure that waste is disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. The management of commercial waste similar in composition to household waste is regulated by the Commercial Wastes Ordinance, which entered into force on 1 January 2003.

Waste disposal monitoring

Because waste can contain various levels of harmful substances, there are different levels of monitoring in recovery or disposal operations. Depending on how the waste is classified in accordance with the regulations of the Waste Catalogue Ordinance (in implementation of the European Waste Catalogue), the following categories have been in place since 1 February 2007:

  • Non-hazardous waste:
    This includes recyclable waste whose recycling process presents no serious problems, especially the recoverable components of household waste and household-like commercial waste such as paper, cardboard, wood, glass, plastics, metals, etc., as well as other non-dangerous recyclable waste such as old tyres or sludge from on-site effluent treatment.
  • Hazardous waste:(known as waste requiring supervision until 31.1.2007) including waste for recovery or disposal such as waste paint and varnish containing halogenated solvents, batteries containing lead, nickel or cadmium, brake fluid, printing ink, adhesives, artificial resins, fluorescent tubes, photographic chemicals, and chlorinated engine, gear and lubricating oils.

The competent waste authority may adjust the kind and intensity of monitoring. The requirements are determined by the Technical Instructions for Waste Disposal, the legislative provisions implementing the Closed Cycle Management Act.

The Act for Simplification of Supervision under Laws Pertaining to Waste Management, which came into force on 1 February 2007, was designed to relieve the sector of unnecessary bureaucracy and increase the efficiency of supervision.

Last update: 01.12.2012