“The Public Sector Should in Future Give Preference to Products from Recycled Materials”

What stimulus does the Federal Government intend to provide to strengthen the circular economy? Florian Pronold, Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), comments.

Consumers are central to the success of the circular economy. They need to be aware of suitable packaging and dispose of it properly. What encouragement can politicians provide here?
Pronold: Citizens must be able to rely packaging placed in the recycling bins actually being recycled, if possible here in Germany. Without public confidence, especially in plastics recycling, it will be difficult to achieve higher recycling rates. Reports of illegal landfills with alleged German plastic waste in Africa or Asia are counterproductive. This is one reason why we have made an international effort to significantly limit the export of plastic waste and make it easier to control it. To create more trust, it is just as important that trade and the dual systems are transparent about how far plastics actually are recycled. The Dual Systems are even expressly required to do this under the new Packaging Act. Private sector initiatives such as geTon are also doing valuable educational work.

In individual areas, minimum quotas for recyclate content in packaging are described as helpful. What do you think?
Pronold: We need minimum standards for recyclates, and for certain plastic products we will also have to talk about setting a minimum content of recyclates. We are already doing this with manufacturers and retail companies, in the framework of the Round Table with retailers and in the Recyclates Initiative of Federal Environment Minister Schulze, and we will soon be announcing the results. We are also supporting binding specifications for packaging design at European level, which may ultimately also include recycling quotas.

One retailer thought that recycling-friendly design and recyclate content could become a requirement for product listing in the future. What do you think of this?
Pronold: We will have far more plastic packaging and products made from recyclates on the market in the near future. They will be either partly or wholly made from such secondary plastics. A high degree of openness on the part of retail would help here.

There are voices from industry and retail claiming that the plastics industry is rejecting recyclates, and that there’s no support from manufacturers in the search for more ecological, recyclate-based alternatives. What encouragement is possible here?
Pronold: Apparently there is still too little demand for recyclates on the market, which is why the plastics industry has not yet reacted in some cases. We are trying to improve this through the Federal Environment Ministry’s recyclate initiative. In addition, the public sector must demand more products with a high recyclate content. We are therefore proposing an amendment to the Recycling Management Act which requires the public sector to give preference in procurement in future to products from recyclates. Since the beginning of this year we have also been promoting the use of recyclates in packaging with the Packaging Act, as these subsequently lead to financial advantages in terms of system participation.

In general, how can incentives be created for packaging manufacturers to give more weight to greater recyclability when designing their packaging?
Pronold: The rethinking has already begun. Packaging consumption and ecological packaging design are at last an issue again for business. Large food discounters now have reduction targets for packaging. There are drugstore chains that are increasingly demanding packaging made from recycled materials. And this is just the beginning. In October we will present further concrete initiatives for reduced packaging and fewer disposable items at the Round Table with retailers.

All of this is a result of the new Packaging Act and its ecological structure for the fees for the dual systems and the closer monitoring of packaging and recycling quantities. This is why we have created the Packaging Register. There are now almost 200,000 companies in the Packaging Register, and that’s three times as many as before the Act. In addition, the quantities of packaging registered with the dual systems in the first half of 2019 have risen compared with the first half of the previous year. Another important thing is that following the presentation by the Central Packaging Register Office and Federal Environmental Agency of an initial orientation guide last year, we will have the first official minimum standard for recyclability of packaging in September. This makes it much easier for industry to pay more attention to increasing the recyclability of its packaging.

Are there enough initiatives on materials research? What measures are needed to further intensify this important issue?
Pronold: There is still a great need for research. One major contribution here is the German Circular Economy Initiative. In general, I believe that a concerted approach is important if we are to achieve materials research that actually leads to less packaging and greater environmental friendliness. To this day, for example, there are hardly any biobased plastics that deliver what they claim, namely to be environmentally friendly.

The Schwarz Group is preparing its own recycling system. Does this make sense?
Pronold: We need economically strong, innovative companies to take back packaging waste as dual systems. They share responsibility for ensuring that the new and significantly higher recycling quotas are met and that the quality of the secondary plastics is high. It is also important for the companies to cooperate closely with the municipalities in the collection and disposal of packaging waste. This is the standard we set as legislators. Otherwise, the federal states and the Federal Cartel Office are responsible for supervising these companies. The Federal Cartel Office will ensure that new dual systems in the hands of retail companies strictly adhere to the rules of fair competition.

Municipal waste disposal is largely lagging behind the state of the art, as waste is generally incinerated unsorted. However, the municipalities lack the funds to establish modern waste processing. What needs to be done here?
Pronold: We are currently in the process of creating a new source of financing for the municipalities for public waste disposal and cleaning streets and parks, based the new EU Single Use Plastics Directive. According to this, manufacturers of single use or disposable articles will in future have to share the costs of waste disposal and cleaning in public spaces. This extended producer responsibility applies to fast-food packaging, beverage cups, light plastic carrier bags and cigarette filters. As a first step, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety Environment will create the legal basis in the Recycling Management Act for a subsequent regulation on participation in municipal cleaning costs by manufacturers of typical disposable items. How extensive this is will depend not least on the proportion of disposable items in public waste containers, streets and parks. The German Association of Local Utilities (VKU) is currently carrying out a nationwide study on this.