The Duales System Deutschland (DSD) has become more economic and efficient since its birth in 1991, but now a German NR bottle and can deposit seems set to throw a spanner in the Green Dot works. Pauline Covell ventures into the far from sweet smelling world of domestic waste
Words like ‘waste’ and ‘rubbish’ have negative overtones, signifying worthlessness and denigration. Apply it to packaging and your average man or woman in the street is unlikely to offer a positive word, that is until they are put in a position where they have to think about it.
In Germany they have been thinking about it for some while now. Anyone who has spent any length of time in the packaging business has his or her own opinion on the Green Dot and the DSD. Ever since that fateful day in June 1991 when the Packaging Ordinance came into force things changed forever in the way packaging is seen.
Paying a licence fee to display ‘Die Grune Punkt’, which then goes on to help finance collection, sorting and negotiating contracts with recycling organisations all seemed a tortuous and expensive means to an end back then. But as one well-known industry pundit has been heard to say: “Only the country that invented the rules of cricket could have come up with the UK’s packaging waste legislation.”
We all remember the dreadful tales of mounds of material collected in Germany with nowhere to go, until it turned up many, many miles away from the German border, in some cases as far as Indonesia. But that,too, has changed.
On a recent visit to Leipzig to see how the DSD operates I heard from Helmut Schmitz, group head of international communications, as to just how radical that change has been. “In 1995 48% of our plastics by weight collected was recycled abroad. In 2001 we recycled 95% of our collected plastics with just 5% being sent abroad.”
To be fair the Green Dot, far from turning sour, has travelled well. “In 1996 the Duales System transferred the right to use the Green Dot mark to the Packaging Recovery Organisation Europe sprl – or Pro Europe – in the form of a general licence,” explained Helmut Schmitz.
“Amongst its tasks were to award the mark to national collection and recovery systems on the basis of uniform rules and regulations and to establish the Green Dot as a European trade mark.”
Apparently it has worked. There are now 16 ‘Green Dot’, ‘Ponte Verde’ or ‘Point Vert’ recovery systems active in 16 countries, he reports, with more than 400bn packs marked with the Green Dot and more than 86 000 licensees using it on their packaging.
Countries signed up to use the mark include Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
On the domestic front, the Germans claim a 14% drop in packaging consumption by consumers between 1991 and 1999 (the fees favour lighter weight and the whole system has made the consumer aware).
The recovery rate is also said to have doubled between 1991 [37.3%] and 2000 [76.7%] with 47M tonnes of post consumer packaging recovered by Duales up to 2001, it claims. But the most important facet of the statistics is a reduction in the cost of all this in recent years reflects Schmitz.
“Duales System Deutschland is a non-profit organisation. Licensees pay fees based on material, weight and item of the specific packaging. Due to technical innovation, better contracts and marketing efforts for recycling products we have managed to reduce our costs. We’ve managed to effect increasing cost reductions over the years 98-02 with fee reductions of EUR540M realised in 2002 alone. These cost savings have been passed on directly to our 19 000 licensees by way of significant fee reductions,” he told me.
Packaging manufacturers, fillers and distributors are shareholders in the Duales system. The waste handling companies and recyclers are not. “So we are very interested in cutting down the costs. Automatic sorting for instance has brought about the most amazing results.
“In Leipzig a new plant, using modern technology to sort the lightweight section of collected packaging processes 12t/hr with seven people,” he explained. “On the recycling front we are seeing such initiatives as recycling PET for beverage bottles in Rostov, something unheard of 10 years ago.
“By implementing automatic sorting we have reduced our fees enormously. We have also had to renegotiate plastics with the waste industry, as there was a lot of air in their contracts. We are putting everything out to tender this year.”
The Green Dot system will lose funding with the advent of a non-returnable bottle deposit system for beer, mineral water and carbonated soft drinks introduced by the German government at the beginning of this year. Beverage cartons and pouches are excluded [who fancies a beer, mineral water or carbonated soft drink keeping much of its carbonation in those packaging styles?].
The deposit for the consumer is 0.25 cents for a container up to 1.5 litre or 50 cents for a one way beverage pack over that size. To add to the problems “recycling could go down as many of the bottles simply won’t be returned”. At SIPA they have already started to see a fall off in PET bottles coming through the Green Dot system to the sorting facility in Leipzig. The cost to retailing in investment for the deposit requirement is estimated at EUR1bn. Who will control the 200 000 places of sale? Who is going to return a mineral water bottle back to the place of sale, if that place is hundreds of kilometres away down the autobahn?
Helmut Schmitz reports that the executive committee of the retail trade and beverage industry in early February recommended a nationwide clearing of deposit-based beverage packaging by an independent company outsourced from DSD. “That’s good news,” adds Helmut Schmitz, “but I predict problems with the cartel office.” He is right – the latest news is that it will not be allowed to happen.
Things get worse still. An amendment to the Packaging Ordinance is planned that puts a general deposit obligation on all one way beverage packaging except for what the government refers to as ‘ecologically advantageous’ one way packs [beverage cartons and pouches], wine, spirits and dietary food.
The aim is to have a ‘minimum share of advantageous beverage packaging’ [by that they mean returnable and ‘ecologically equivalent packaging’] of 80% by 2006.
According to Helmut Schmitz the latest deposit obligation will mean that the total licence fees collected by the DSD will drop by about 15-20%, reflecting the reduction in the deposit carrying packages that will no longer require the Green Dot licence.
The new legislation is hitting the packaging mix in Germany. “There have been several reports that can-making plants especially have severe problems. Some plants have been closed down,” says Helmut Schmitz.
In the UK, director of Incpen Jane Bickerstaffe believes the new German legislation to be seriously flawed. She reports that there has already been a 60% fall in the German can market.
“We were opposed to the Green Dot system from the beginning. We should never have put recycling on a pedestal. The trouble is that it ignores the development chain. Recycling should be driven by economics. It doesn’t make any difference to litter. To be honest someone who is drunk doesn’t distinguish between a returnable or non-returnable container!
“There are no environmental grounds for favouring one type of packaging over another, as several studies have shown. Despite a lack of evidence, the German Ordinance discriminated in favour of refillable containers. The new deposit proposal is even more discriminatory.
“No matter what material is used, an environmentally sensible pack is one that protects its contents from the point of production to point of consumption with minimum use of materials and energy, while generating the least amount of waste from product and pack.
“The difference in the environmental impact of different packs is marginal. The difference in the energy and materials needed to make two identical bottles in different factories can be greater than the difference between a can and a bottle.”
TIME TO COME CLEAN
I went to look at the SERO Leipzig sorting of lightweight packaging [plastics films, bottles, tubs and cans, cartons and paper] to see for myself how efficient the operation is.
The first thing that struck me was the cleanliness of the place. I was all prepared to work my way past or even through mountains of rank ‘material’ but that is not the case. The EUR10M new plant was designed to provide a greater sorting depth and higher purity of recyclable materials. It replaced three obsolete plants.
From the input hall the packaging is conveyed past a bag opener to two drum sieves that separate the material by size into three streams, the middle stream being divided again. Three magnet separators remove cans, crown closures and other ferrous packaging.
“Since the magnet separators are positioned longitudinally above the belts, the cans can be lifted out with few impurities,” says managing director of SERO Leipzig Dr Uwe Rantzsch. “The result is impurity-free tinplate bales weighing exactly 100kg, which are automatically pressed and forwarded for melting down.”
Air separators extract films from the belt with surprisingly high accuracy. Then aluminium and beverage cartons as well as paper and cartonboard packaging is sorted out. Plastics packaging goes last, a ballistics separator separating soft and rigids.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the line is the polymer-sorting module. Here PE, PP, PS and finally PET is automatically separated with the aid of near infrared devices developed by Titech-Visionsort of Norway.
“This is a real innovation, a prototype that works very well,” says Dr Rantzsch. “It automatically identifies which type of plastics is going past at that moment.”
Fractions achieved have a purity of at least 95%. Each fraction is checked once again at the end by the sorting staff. The high degree of automation cuts personnel costs.