Reusable waste collection: municipalities bag yellow bags

50 cities and municipalities are switching to new collection bins starting in January. Some are taking advantage of this to introduce a recycling garbage can.

Yellow sacks for packaging waste will be history in many cities Photo: imago

From the sack to the garbage can – in the new year, more than 50 municipalities will change the way they dispose of packaging waste. They will no longer distribute yellow bags to households, but instead place yellow garbage cans in front of their doors.

"Many municipalities are switching packaging collection from sacks to garbage cans because the yellow sacks often burst, are torn open by animals or blown away, and then the plastic waste pollutes the streets and the environment," says a spokeswoman for the Association of Municipal Enterprises (VKU). In addition, the yellow bags can only be used once and consume resources themselves, "whereas the garbage can is a typical reusable container," the spokeswoman says.

Some municipalities are taking advantage of this step to fundamentally reform waste disposal and are expanding the yellow garbage can into a recyclables garbage can. According to VKU, this is not financially viable at the moment – the disposal of so-called recyclable plastic materials is significantly more expensive than incinerating them with the residual waste. Due to low crude oil prices and closed export channels, sales of secondary raw materials collapsed last year, and granulates made from recycled materials hardly found any buyers.

At the beginning of the decade, the "recyclables garbage can" was a contested terrain. Municipal and private disposal companies fought over access to the recyclables. In the meantime, however, the issue has become much less explosive, and the industry is calling for the creation of a market for secondary plastics in the first place, with input quotas for recycled materials in plastic products and specifications for public procurement.

Separate collection of plastics

Cities such as Augsburg and Munster are nevertheless focusing on collecting more plastics separately. For this reason, after a one-year transitional period, Munster residents will no longer receive yellow sacks, but only yellow garbage cans. In these, they are to dispose not only of packaging made of plastic or metal, as before, but also "non-packaging of the same material", i.e. things made of plastic and metal.

"We are now putting an end to a nonsense of the yellow garbage can that citizens never understood anyway," says Patrick Hasenkamp, head of the waste management company (AWM) Munster and vice president of the Association of Municipal Enterprises (VKU). Hasenkamp is certain that citizens want plastic waste from their households to be recycled to the highest possible quality – regardless of whether it is packaging or not. "Collection by licensing is no longer in keeping with the times," says Hasenkamp, "we should collect by material."

From a purely legal point of view, however, waste management companies will still have to differentiate between "packaging" and "non-packaging" in the future. About 12,500 tons of plastic waste are generated in Munster every year, of which 2,500 tons are municipal plastic waste – such as old buckets, butter tins or toys – and 10,000 tons are packaging waste. So AWM is allowed to collect and sort a proportionate 2,500 tons of the waste and then sell it on to a recycling company. The remaining 10,000 tons must be handed over to a dual system, which in most cases puts the recycling out to tender.

For Munster, Remondis has currently won the tender. "A simpler system under municipal responsibility would have been better, of course," says Hasenkamp, "but that was not enforceable in the past two legislative periods." The German government is just now amending the Packaging Act, and there again it is missing a big shot in the direction of a circular economy.

A few years ago, electrical appliances were also discussed as a possible fraction in a simulation conducted by the Federal Environment Agency to determine the advantages and disadvantages of the recycling garbage can. In Munster, this had not proved effective because the appliances had to be packed in extra containers in the garbage can to prevent the sometimes toxic ingredients of hairdryers, laptops or radios from contaminating the plastic waste. Nevertheless, they are collected separately – as required by law. However, waste experts also believe the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act is in need of renovation.

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