Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Recycling and composting comparison

I have always composted, since ever having my own garden. Part of the reason probably was, what do you do with all the garden waste you get from your garden, the clippings, the cleaned up plant material from your vegetable garden in fall, the weeds you pull, the fall leaves you rake, if your community does not offer yard waste pick up.

Back then in the early nineties most communities in the US did not offer yard waste pick up so you either had to start your own compost bin or throw it in the garbage. Lot of people in Los Angeles area threw the yard waste just in the garbage, I assume the same was in many other communities. To me it seemed to be almost a crime to throw all that in the garbage, filling up land fills with it.

I always thought it to be strange when I came here first, that in this rich industrial country like USA there was no recycling whatsoever. Everything was thrown out, trashcans were huge compared to Germany and talking to people nobody really seemed to care back then. Some told me 'America is such a big country, if we mess up this place, we can just move to another part" this opinion I got many times when living in Los Angeles.
Shocking! If you think about it.
Luckily things are different now, most cities have now yard waste bins for your yard clippings and many cities pass out cheap composters to residents and promote backyard composting. Things surely have improved since I first came to the US; but for recycling in good old USA, we are still doing baby steps compared to most European countries. Don't get me wrong I am glad they are recycling at all, I just wish more could be recycled. Still too many things are going into the landfill, which shouldn't.

Germany, who some years ago overhauled their waste management rules, is enforcing strict recycling, making it a legal offense to throw recyclables in the garbage and forcing manufacturing to reduce their packaging. Recycling your waste is just part of live over there.
Germans do not recycle because they 'have to' or 'could face a fine' if throwing recyclables in the trash, people there recycle because they think it is the right thing to do, it is something they learn about in early childhood and through adulthood and they care about their environment.

In the years since Germany started the new waste management legislation, Germany over time has become one of the biggest recycling countries in the world. In Germany almost nothing goes to waste, they are the most prolific waste sorters in the world now. Each recyclable item gets it's own color coded bin. So it is pretty straight forward once you know the system.
          'These are the recycling bins in my brothers multi family building'

It's so ingrained in everybody and part of everyday living for Germans, that nobody even thinks about it, it has become a completely automatic action, like walking. They sort everything now, my mother has a tiny garbage can it is all she needs for regular trash, all the other stuff goes into large bins. All paper, even the smallest scrap, candy wrappers, glass, plastic and organic waste is sorted out and recycled.

Most bottles, glass and plastic, aluminum cans has a deposit on it, vendors who sell these, even the smallest kiosk booth by law have to take them back.

This is not really a new rule, they just improved on it, even as I grew up there were deposits on bottles. If you bought beer and carbonated beverages you usually bought a box of twelve bottles, the box made of hard plastic had a deposit as well, as you returned the box you just grab a new box with full bottles and as long no bottles are missing the old deposits are transferred to the new. No charges for deposits are exchanged. This is still the system most stores do. Almost all families in Germany store boxes of their drinks in the basement or storage rooms.

All other glass is sorted by color: green, white and brown and gets placed in designated bins which are all over the towns and cities.

All Paper, every little scrap of paper, magazines included, cardboard and paper based packaging go in the blue or green recycle bin, color depends on where you live (Altpapier-Old paper) or in special paper recycling containers in your neighborhood.
Also the supermarkets and stores by law have to take back almost all kinds of packaging. Every supermarket has garbage cans for the different trash. So when you shop you can just unwrap your purchase and leave all the cardboard or Styrofoam there. The point in Germany is not just to recycle but also to not produce so much waste. By requiring companies to take care of the trash they produce, waste has greatly been reduced because companies are using less packaging.

Recyclable plastic wrappings and containers, aluminium, tin cans, polystyrene, things made of composite materials like beverage cartons or spray cans, go into the yellow bins. If it is supposed to go in that bin the product will have a symbol looking like a green Yin and Yang-called in German "der Grüne Punkt"
There are also some very strict municipal laws that ban plastic dishes in government buildings, schools and universities.

Compostable kitchen scraps, peels, leftover food, coffee filters, tea bags and all the garden trimmings go into a green or brown bin, depending where you live called "Biotonne" - bio-bin or a special compost bin found somewhere in your area you live. The 'Biotonne' waste accounts for about 50% of all waste produced in Germany.

It is against the law to throw out old batteries, unused pharmaceuticals, waste oil or old varnish and paint into the regular trash. All stores selling these products have to accept the return of these products to properly dispose of them.

Old unwanted appliances, televisions, old furniture, ironing board and other large household items are picked up three or four times a year on at "Sperrmüll" - bulky trash day.  In some cities you have to arrange a pick up with your local trash collector. For all other times if you have bigger items or computer cities have special recycling facilities (Recyclinghof) set up, easy accessible where one can deliver these things. Some fees apply to certain items.

Old clothing and shoes are picked up on regular basis at your curb by different charities run by volunteers, the Youth Red Cross is one of those. It will be usually announced a few days ahead by fliers or newspaper announcements.
But there are also containers for these items set up by commercial companies around town.

 Even your Christmas tree gets a special pickup day. This usually happens early or mid January and the dates are announced in your local newspaper.

If you have anything left after sorting out all the other trash you put it into the gray bin, which is called "Restmüll" -leftover trash. This includes personal hygiene items, textiles, diapers, cigarette buds and other non recyclables.
If you followed all the recycling rules, you probably will not have much left to put in there.
I know every time I visit my family in Germany I am amazed how little trash they produce that goes into the Restmüll. They really now recycle almost all waste.

Let's compare some numbers:
The numbers of Britain and Germany are from 2007, the US numbers are from 2005 because they don't have any newer data, because the EPA releases numbers not very frequently.
Germany even they are a highly industrialized country produces only 30 million tons of trash a year, of this 50 percent is bio waste, meaning it does not go into landfills.  We also have a population 25% larger then Britain, still Great Britain managed to produce 36 million tons of trash and the US 246 million tons of trash. The recycling rate in Germany is now 74.9 percent. While Great Britain only recovered 23.5% and the US in 2007 was able only to recover 33% of their total waste, nevertheless it is small improvement from 1985 when only 10% got recycled.

In other words, the Germans are recycling much more of their garbage than the British or Americans.
But this is not all, Germany used to have more then 50.000 landfills in the 1970s, now they have less then 200. Anything else, that can not be recycled is incinerated in high tech incinerators or undergoes mechanical biological treatment. By the time it goes into the landfill it amounts to only 1% of all waste.

This is how much household recycling has improved in Germany over the years

United States recycling statistics have improved each year since the U.S. started recycling in earnest but they still have a long way to go. 
This information is from the EPA latest numbers in 2005; which gives mixed results about household MSW-municipal solid waste.
Even the US is showing a sustained improvement in waste reduction, the municipal solid waste the US creates is still on the up and rising. From 1980 to 2005 the municipal solid waste increased 60%, and since the 1960s the amount of waste produces doubled.
 I think these are really shameful numbers. It is just utter gluttony!
There was a grand total of 246 million tons of trash created in 2005.
The good news in that is that figure is 2 million tons smaller then from 2004. According to the EPA.

I don't really think this is something we should applaud each other for. Because the news I am reading here is.
Americans still don't get it, the US manufacturers still don't get it and the Politicians are definitely not getting it.

The proof that the US is not really getting it shows clearly in the statement from the EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson who released these numbers. Don't forget this is during the Bush administration.
This what he said: "We are turning a throw-away culture into a recycling culture," Johnson said. "By encouraging smart use of resources, we can hand down a more sustainable planet to future generations."

Excuse me if I have to laugh

According to Johnson nearly 40 percent of containers and packaging material was recycled in 2005. It is an improvement, but not enough of an improvement.

Here is the breakdown of these numbers by packaging material
Recycling numbers for the US          in 2005 from the EPA                         
Glass                                                                        25 %
Paper and paperboard containers                           58.8 % 
Plastic containers                                                         9 %
Steel                                                                       63.3 % 
All aluminum packaging, including aluminum foil        36.3 %
Aluminum cans                                                           45 %
Wood (mostly pallets)                                                 15 %

Are you proud now seeing these numbers? We surely can do better.
We have a lot of catch up to do in the US.
As long people are not taking the responsibility for how they shop and what they buy, I don't believe much will change. As long the industry is not forced to reduce their waste, we always will be on the top in the comparison with the rest of the other countries how we deal with trash. On the top of being the greatest trash producing country in the world.


Deborah at Kilbourne Grove said...

Thank you for such an interesting and informative post. We should all take more responsibility!

flowers said...

Just gone through your blog and found it to be awesome. It was nice going through your blog. The header image of the garden with statue of Buddha looks great.

DieGartenFrau said...

Thank you flowers. The header picture was taken in my front yard, which is the bottom of a hill and shady. When I moved in it had a bit of Asian feel, so I am trying to make it into an Asian PNW garden.

Elephant's Eye said...

We, in our small town, are just starting a recycling project. 10 years of living in Switzerland, with my Swiss husband, gives us a direction to follow.

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