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German Plan Leads the Way With Comprehensive Recycling

The government-mandated plan is privately run, with profit incentive

GERMANY has entered the final phase of one of the world's most comprehensive government-mandated recycling plans.

As of this month, virtually all German households are connected to a national recycling network, and some 70-80 percent of consumer packaging is marked with a "green dot" - the sign to consumers that the product is recyclable.

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A German law requires the reuse or recycling of everything from pallets and plastic wrap used to transport goods, down to the individual yogurt cup. It has already prompted four out of five manufacturers to change packaging, with many discarding excess packaging and paring down on plastics.

If Germany meets its final recycling target in 1995 as expected, roughly 7 to 8 million tons of sales-packaging waste, or more than 30 percent of household waste, will no longer end up in landfills or be incinerated. Germany's green dots are also stirring up considerable interest abroad. "The system which the Germans invented is going to be more or less copied," says Jan Bongaerts, director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy here in Bonn. France, Austria, and Denmark are just a handful of

countries inspired by the German model.

The unique aspect of the German system is that, although it is government-mandated, it is privately run and based on economic incentive. The law, which took effect in 1991, required that packaging be returned to the manufacturer. This meant stores would have to take back packaging from consumers and pass it back up the vendor chain.

Horrified at the idea of smelly tuna cans and sticky honey jars piling up in grocery stores, industry got together and came up with its own collecting, sorting, and recycling system for consumer packaging. Now 600 retailers, consumer-goods manufacturers, and packaging companies support the Duales System Deutschland (DSD), the private company created to run the system.

DSD, based in Bonn, is completely financed by green-dot license fees. Companies must prove to DSD that their packaging is recyclable and in this way they can earn the right to display the green-dot logo on their products. They pay an average of 1.8 pfenning (1.1 cents) per green-dotted item to DSD.

The green-dot fees bankroll the collecting and sorting (most of it still done manually) that is organized by DSD in collaboration with already existing local waste-disposal firms. The actual recycling is contracted out, with the recycling companies charging manufacturers directly.

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Currently, DSD's green-dot fees are based on volume, but as of October, DSD will also consider the type of product bearing the green dot and how difficult it is to recycle. This will hit plastics particularly hard, and companies are already scrambling to use less plastic in their packaging.

Gunnar Sohn, spokesman for DSD, says basic economics is the force behind a spurt of innovation in packaging. "Through economic incentive, industry is considering new technologies in order to get a better handle on recycling."

Ultimately, of course, manufacturers pass green-dot fees on to the consumer, who, according to DSD estimates, will pay roughly 30 deutsche marks ($18.42) per year to support the system.

German consumers, meanwhile, are playing their part, says Mr. Sohn. In a pilot program in Bonn last year, 85 percent of consumers sorted their household waste and used the special yellow containers provided for green-dot products. The amount of incorrectly sorted waste, he says, "was not very dramatic."

Germans have long been dropping off glass and paper at neighborhood collection bins. This system will continue, while everything else bearing the green dot - plastic, metal, foil, laminated drink cartons - goes into the new yellow bags or cans picked up at consumer homes by DSD.

Ironically, environmentalists in Germany are not happy with the green-dot recycling system. They argue the DSD is not discriminating enough in granting green-dot licenses and does not monitor recycling plants to see if they are effective. In response, DSD has signed up an independent inspection service, the Technical Inspection Agency (TUV), to monitor the recycling companies.

The chemical industry, meanwhile, has lagged behind in constructing recycling plants, and has to catch up to meet the 1995 recycling quota.

Germany's system also has its detractors abroad. Represented by the London-based Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), 60 major European and international companies have lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission.

Kathy Banks, director general of INCPEN, warns of Germany flooding the European market with vast quantities of recycled materials. "The recycling scheme in Germany collects and sorts material with no end-use markets, and would export them to other countries and ruin their own recycling schemes or overload other countries' waste-handling systems," she argues.

To that charge, DSD's spokesman Sohn simply replies: "either you have competition or you don't."

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