By Staff Writer Brendan Pringle
Trash has always been a “dirty” problem. Fortunately, the recycling rate in the United States has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, comprising one-third of our total generated waste. Still, approximately 135 million tons of waste ended up in landfills in 2008—some of which was exported to China.
The 3 R’s of recycling- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle- have been reinforced in our schools for decades, yet Americans still continue to fall behind other nations in their recycling habits. Countries like Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany dominate in their organized practices. While the US has similar recycling systems in effect, our government and society both miss the mark in promoting improvement.
1) A Rainbow of “Sorts”
Germany leaves the rest of Western civilization behind with its sheer discipline in the art of recycling. In a typical German city, you will find around 5 types of bins outside of apartment complexes and inside of residences. Bins are color-coded in a five part system: a yellow bin for packaging, a blue bin for paper and cardboard, bins for glass (divided further into amber, green and clear glass), a “bio” bin for left-over food and plant waste, and a black bin for everything else. It may indeed be a conspiracy to confuse tourists, but the program is working. “Umweltsünden” or environmental sins are simply frowned upon in German culture.
A few areas of Italy have likewise caught the green fever, adopting similar five-bin systems. In the northern city of Roncade, local authorities have provided every household with five different waste bins, charging an annual fee for collection. In Italy, recycling rates vary by region (and even by district), but this example is surely a sign of the times.
Meanwhile, the French still do their part to be green, but are rather picky about having too many recycling options. Thus, in a city like Paris, you will see three types of bins—white for glass, yellow for paper, metal and plastic, and green for all other trash. According to council officials, Parisians won’t accept any more options. Waste management authorities clearly understand the limits of French tolerance.
2) Reduction: A Matter of Cost
An undeniable reason for the fastidiousness of Swiss recycling is that its citizens are charged for every individual bag of trash, whereas recycling is free. The Swiss must put a sticker on each 7.7-gallon bag ready for pickup, at a cost of about 1 euro a sticker. There’s no penalty for not having a sticker; an unidentified bag is just left behind. This is a strong financial incentive for minimizing waste, mainly because it gives the Swiss more control over their pocketbooks.
Germany’s Green Dot system, started in 1991, requires companies that sell packaged goods to pay license fees to fund a private “dual system” that collects and recycles packaging. This provides an incentive for companies to reduce their amount of packaging materials. And now, 25 other countries are following in Germany’s footsteps with similar Green Dot programs.
European retailers have also begun charging for bags in the checkout line. Supermarkets in Italy typically charge about 5 cents for “una busta” (a plastic bag), causing people to think twice before grabbing that extra “busta.” German grocers have likewise charged a plastic bag fee for quite some time. An Irish tax on plastic bags requires customers to pay 33 cents per bag at the register. Plastic bag usage has dropped 94%, and reusable bags have simply become more fashionable.
3) Burn Baby Burn
Waste incinerators have taken over in Western Europe as an effective, green way of dealing with the rest of the trash. Switzerland uses the energy from municipal incinerators to produce electricity and affordable steam heat used to fuel industry and heat public buildings. There is actually a strong market for burnable trash in Switzerland.
Not to be “out-greened” by the Swiss, the Danes have taken waste incineration to a whole new level. Denmark currently has 29 modern incineration plants, which convert most of its waste into heat and electricity. This has reduced Denmark’s reliance on gas and oil, as well as its energy costs. One plant in Horsholm provides 80% of the city’s heat and 20% of its electricity. And only about 5% of the city’s garbage ends up in landfills.
Someone with a sensitive green conscience may ask themselves: Doesn’t all this burning of trash pollute the environment with harmful fumes? The simple answer is “not really.” State of the art filtering technology catches all the mercury, dioxins, nitrogen oxides, and other potential pollutants before they can be released into the atmosphere.
In comparison to Switzerland and Denmark, most United States waste incinerators are around 15 years old, thus projecting a bad example of their potential. Many US environmental groups have argued that we should be promoting waste reduction instead of incineration. This, combined with the powerful NIMBY effect, has restricted the construction of new, clean incinerators in the US.
- – - – - – -
The big question remains: How do we get the public excited as the Berliners about recycling? As we can see from these examples, it all comes down to money and public image. The financial incentives remain strong as ever if the government chooses to collaborate with private industry. Recycling merely needs to become chic, as it has in Western Europe.