Action on packaging waste exports promised by Germany

Germany has promised to stop exporting plastic packaging waste to EC countries after Christmas in the wake of complaints that these subsidised materials are damaging their recycling infrastructure. The move has drawn a mixed reaction from UK packaging producers who use cheap German waste and from plastics recyclers. German action on the much larger paper trade will not be so radical.

The problems created by Germany's packaging waste exports came to a head at the EC Environment Council in October. After hearing strong criticisms from the UK, France, Spain and Portugal, German Environment Minister Klaus Tö.pfer promised them bilateral talks.

Environment Minister Tim Yeo met Herr Tö.pfer at the end of October. His message was that Germany must take substantial action soon unless it wanted to be responsible for the "most serious setback to European recycling efforts within recent memory." Mr Yeo called on Germany to amend its Packaging Ordinance so that less packaging was collected or incineration allowed.

Herr Tö.pfer responded by announcing that he will stop the export of plastic packaging waste to EC countries after the end of the year because sufficient capacity to recycle Germany's waste plastics is coming on stream both in Germany and in non-EC countries.

At present Germany has capacity to reprocess 120,000 tonnes of the 450,000 tonnes of plastics packaging expected to be collected this year. Another 40,000 tonnes will be exported. However, 700,000 tonnes must be recycled by 1995, so substantial investments in reprocessing capacity will be needed in Germany and elsewhere if its promise is to be fulfilled. There are many doubts whether it can be.

The outcome of the meeting may help alleviate the immediate concern of the UK plastics recycling industry, but it has not gained widespread support among users of recycled plastics or the Department of Environment (DoE).

The DoE considers that stopping exports only postpones the problem. Unless markets are created in Germany, mountains of recycled plastic will be produced. These may find their way to the UK, competing with expensive recycled plastics of UK origin.

The plastics industry has not given the German announcement an unqualified welcome for this reason. The British Plastics Federation has yet to decide whether to support the initiative.

Ironically, the German move may reduce the amount of UK plastics waste which is recycled. Alan Davey of Linpac Plastics said that Herr Tö.pfer's announcement "stinks". Linpac uses German waste to subsidise its consumption of UK plastics waste. German HDPE waste, for example, is 30% cheaper than virgin material, while UK waste is 20-25% more expensive. Without German waste, says Mr Davey, Linpac may not be able to use any waste plastic, threatening the UK recycling industry. He will be considering reducing the amount of waste plastic bought from the recycling organisation Recoup next year if this price differential remains.

On paper, Herr Tö.pfer promised that investments in reprocessing mills in Germany will soon alleviate the problems faced in the UK by exports of German waste paper. Two mills are being built for newsprint and one for graphics paper.

Because the international trade in waste paper is substantial, a ban on exports is not on the cards. Clemens Stroetmann, Germany's Environment Secretary, told an FT conference on packaging in October that because there is an international trade in primary paper there should also be a corresponding market for secondary raw materials. Germany uses 16 million tonnes of paper per year of which eight million tonnes are imported.

Herr Stroetmann nevertheless offered some hope to the packaging industry and the DoE. He said that an amendment to the Packaging Ordinance which allows for incineration of the packaging collected in excess of the targets laid down is "not urgent but may be needed".

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