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Germany’s incineration industry is suffering from a surprising problem

| February 24, 2014

Now here’s a problem we don’t write about very often: Germany does not have enough trash.

You read that correctly.

It’s important to note that this surprising assertion comes according to the multiple companies fighting over quotas and the income generation that comes from processing waste, so it should be taken with a giant grain of salt.

Yes, waste is indeed an industry — and a lucrative one at that. Thus, there’s a point at which waste reduction efforts butt up against the mighty forces of capitalism, and tension ensues.

Germany is at that point.

germany doesn't have enough trash for incineration

An increase in recycling means the incineration industry suffers. From net_efekt.

Here’s how it happened, as reported by Christine Lepisto in a recent article from Treehugger:

Officials in a number of large German municipalities struck deals with private waste incineration companies. Those officials essentially promised that if the company invested in infrastructure for incineration, the city would guarantee a minimum amount of business (and by “business,” I mean “trash”).

This led to an expansion of the incineration industry in Germany.

Meanwhile, German laws passed since the 1980s (when high volumes of consumer waste were a big issue) required suppliers to take back packaging materials. The laws included minimum quotas. The recycling industry boomed as companies (one in particular) dramatically expanded capacity to handle recycling on behalf of these suppliers.

Now there are too many companies scrambling to fill quotas and generate income.

In fact, the “war over waste” has heated up to the point where Germany’s largest recycling conglomerate has expressed genuine concern that municipalities will actually swoop in and collect items intended for recycling and divert them to the incinerators in order to meet the guaranteed minimums.

Stealing recyclables for trash? It sounds like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie.

Alas, money is a powerful motivator. As Lepisto explains, “With waste quantities well below the anticipated volumes, these cities now experience financial penalties, even paying incinerators for failure to meet contractual obligations.”

And those payments are nothing to sniff about. One city, Oberlausitz-Niederschleisen, owed $4 million to the local incineration company.

In theory, incineration only happens to items “without high recycling value,” but that classification appears to be somewhat subjective.

It’s a complicated issue, to be sure, and there doesn’t appear to be an obvious solution at hand. Until recently, Germany had an extraordinarily efficient recycling system, but anti-monopolistic regulation incited price wars, and the increased competition for waste from incineration companies has threatened the system.

It must be pointed out that there aren’t clear “good” and “bad” sides here — recycling returns items to the value chain, while incineration generates energy. Both play important roles, but there is a delicate balance, and “poorly designed incineration contracts” along with “inappropriate political and bureaucratic incentives,” as Lepisto puts it, have created a real problem in Germany.

Here’s hoping that in the battle over trash, the earth emerges as the real winner.

Category: Energy, Recycling programs, Regulations

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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