What happens to our plastic waste?

Germany celebrates itself as the recycling world champion. We separate every type of waste: residual waste, paper waste, yellow bag and organic waste. We remove the paper from the yoghurt cup and throw it into the respective waste bin. Large supermarket chains and drugstores no longer hand out plastic bags and are gradually dispensing with superfluous plastic. And yet the media are full of the fact that we have a huge problem with plastic waste. Plastic ends up in the sea and in the environment, 660 animal species are threatened with extinction due to plastic waste. But how is this possible, when we have such a great waste separation and recycling system in Germany?

Plastics: Facts

What we colloquially call plastic is actually plastic. It is called plastic because it is a substance that does not occur in nature, but is produced artificially, namely from the limited raw material crude oil. It is chemically unstable, which changes the state of the material when the temperature changes and the plastic decomposes very slowly. It does not simply disintegrate, but is broken down more and more by friction from outside. This is exactly why it is hard to imagine our everyday life without plastic: it is durable and can be used in many different ways as yoghurt pots, car tyres, fishing nets, in mobile phones, computers or toys - the list could go on and on. However, a normal plastic bottle alone, for example, takes 450 years to decompose.

Where does our plastic waste end up?

Sure, our plastic waste goes in the yellow bag. (And by the way, this has only been the case since 1991, before that all plastics were disposed of via residual waste or landfill). But what happens afterwards with your old toothbrush and your tofu packaging?

According to the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), almost 6.15 million tonnes of plastic waste were generated in 2017. Of this, 99.4% of all plastic waste was recycled. This does not mean, however, that they were actually recycled. Only just under half (46.7%) were used as materials or raw materials, i.e. reused. The other half was energetically recovered, i.e. incinerated, partly in landfills or as a substitute for fossil fuels. This is not only less environmentally friendly than recycling, but also requires a higher energy input.

The overall recycling rate is therefore not very high. This is primarily due to the fact that some of the plastic cannot be recycled. There is a great abundance of different plastics and many plastics are not available in a single type because they are either mixed together or substances are added to them. However, only single-variety plastics can be recycled properly.

Germany also exports up to one million tonnes of plastic waste annually, e.g. to Malaysia, India and Indonesia. The absurd thing about this is that the waste is then considered recycled in Germany, although a proper recycling process in the target countries often cannot be guaranteed at all. What is sold to us as recycled may in fact be lying in illegal landfills in the rainforest or being washed into the sea.

Separate waste properly

One problem with disposal is that most people do not know what belongs in which bin. You think maybe everything made of plastic belongs in the yellow bag? Not true! According to the "Green Dot", light packaging, i.e. packaging made of metals such as aluminium and tinplate, composite materials such as drinks cartons and plastic packaging belong in the yellow bin or yellow bag. Your old toothbrush, for example, does not belong in it. The recycling process can only work properly if the materials are separated correctly. Der Grüne Punkt itself has provided a clearly arranged "separation aid" that you can here to download. Now nothing can go wrong! But why is there such a huge amount of plastic waste?

Why there is so much plastic waste

The market for packaging materials is a gigantic industry. According to the Gesamtverband Kunststoffverarbeitender Industrie (GKV), the plastics industry generates 63.7 billion euros in sales in Germany. This is because, in addition to the use of plastics for the products themselves, such as in the construction of aircraft or cars, product packaging in particular is decisive for the high level of plastic production. Because, as already mentioned, plastic is on the one hand very flexible and on the other hand stable and durable. In addition, plastic is much lighter than other packaging materials, so that, for example, less kerosene or fuel is needed to transport the goods.

The solution: Avoiding plastic waste

As you have seen, the recycling process of plastics in Germany is already much better than before 1991, but there are also some points of criticism that prevent direct and easy recycling. In addition, too much plastic is simply still burned. So the easiest solution is still to do without plastic more and more. In an upcoming blog post we will give you some useful tips where you can start to use less plastic. But unfortunately that is not enough. We also need a change on a political and economic level. We will tell you about the current situation in a new post in the near future. So stay tuned!