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Germany Turns Trash Into Matter of Manners


GERMANY takes trash - and the recycling of it - very seriously. Just how seriously is made clear in a 72-page ''Trash Planner '96-'97'' that the Bonn city government recently distributed to residents.

A typical kitchen in this German city of 300,000 could be expected to have two bins: one with a ''Green Dot'' (more on that later) and one for other refuse, plus a plastic crate for glass and plastic bottles (for redeemables and recyclables, the latter further subdivided by color: brown, green, or white).

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Ditto for an office, which would have bins for newspapers and recyclable office paper, and separate bundled piles for cardboard, magazines, and old books as needed.

But that just scratches the surface of trash awareness.

Clink, clank, clink.

That noise? It comes from three glass- recycling bins found in most neighborhoods. There are 450 such facilities around the city.

According to the official schedule, glass may be deposited only from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday, though this rule has its exceptions. Every few days a truck pulls up to empty the bins.

The trash planner includes an executive summary in 12 languages, including Farsi. It gives the itinerary for the hazardous-waste wagon that makes its rounds to 52 locations throughout the city during the year. It includes postcards that citizens can send off to order their own recycling bins. This year, a postcard survey will determine whether residents prefer special trash pickups (old furniture, for example) by a schedule or by appointment.

Environmental etiquette

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The planner also lays out reams of helpful advice on trash etiquette, including where to order cotton diapers instead of using disposables, what to do with your old bottle corks, and why a plumber's helper is better than chemicals to unclog your sink.

Even the lowly plastic yogurt cup earns a paragraph of note (the advice: use glass). Bonn's waste-management counseling team is poised to advise panicked recyclers on any subject not already covered.

Hans Erken, manager of Bonn's waste-management department, allows that Bonn's trash planner may be extensive. ''We don't claim that it's the best, but it's a good one,'' he says. ''Environmental consciousness is on the increase.''

The Green Dot recycling program marks the peak of German organizational achievement in the world of trash. For several years, manufacturers have paid for a Green Dot logo to appear on their packaging, which then goes into special yellow bins emptied by private contractors.

The purpose of the plan is to put the expense of recycling on those who produce the packaging, though consumers ultimately pay for the system because manufacturers pass along its costs to them. But a household that consistently separates out Green Dot trash should, in theory at least, see a reduction in municipal fees for regular trash, which are assessed by volume.

Mr. Erken claims that the end result is a significant reduction in waste over the past few years in Bonn, with a 30 percent fee reduction in 1995 over the previous year.

Some other countries, such as Austria and France, are seeking to adopt a similar system to the Green Dot. But not every German is convinced. ''We try to avoid Green Dot products,'' says Raoul Schaefer-Groebel, manager of Momo, a natural foods store in Bonn. He recounts widely reported horror stories of Green Dot waste that has been sloppily handled, despite an elaborate auditing system: Yogurt cups incinerated in Turkey or India, and aluminum cans shipped off to Brazil.

Critics of the current system argue that its emphasis on recycling clouds the primary environmental goal - reducing waste.

Government policy ''is on the wrong track,'' says Jurgen Rochlitz, a Green member of the Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament, when it pushes recycling instead of Earth-friendlier packaging up front. He would like to see taxes to encourage use of multiple-use glass containers for milk, for instance, instead of either packaging or recyclable glass, which has to be melted down for reuse.

Ahead of the market

The German zest for recycling may also be far ahead of the market's demand for recycled materials. Some 84 percent of paper gets recycled in Germany, according to Hans-Werner Kumpel, manager of Clemens-Recycling in Bonn. But only 52 to 54 percent of this can be reused here, he estimates. The rest must be exported, a difficult business at a time when the dollar, on which used-paper prices are based, has been weak.

Mr. Kumpel identifies a positive sign for recycling firms, though: A new law, to be phased in starting this October, gives manufacturers waste-management responsibility not only for the packaging but for products themselves, notably electronic appliances. The law needs some regulatory fleshing out, he says, but eventually it will be good for the recycling business.

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