waste management systems has never been higher as the world’s population continues to grow surpassing 7 billion this decade and predicted to be 11.2 billion by the United Nations in 2100¹.
Europe leads the way in waste management solutions. So it is no surprise that Germany, Austria and Belgium are 3 of the top performers in recycling². While recycling is not the sole indicator of a sophisticated and well-functioning waste management system, it is certainly a key component. The experiences of these 3 countries can perhaps provide useful examples that others can follow. So let’s have a look at how they have been able to get to this top position.
Starting with Germany, this is probably not a surprise to anyone as they have long had a reputation for organisation, effectiveness and world class engineering. In 1950, Germany had around 50,000 landfills; now they have only 300 which do not accept unsorted garbage – quite the turnaround! Germany has done a number of things right to get to this point. In 2005, Germany banned traditional garbage dumps replacing them with a much more sophisticated system. By 2022, they also aim to have decommissioned their remaining landfills and implement plans to utilised all the waste that is created and the energy produced by it.
The German business institute estimates that they can save up to €3.7 billion a year from recycling and the energy produced from their waste. Waste processing systems already save them 20% of the cost of metals and 3% of the cost of energy imports.
Implementing advanced waste management systems takes more investment than the traditional approach to dealing with waste. German entrepreneurs see waste management as a business opportunity and acknowledge that through innovative policy in this area German companies lead the way in this growing sector of the world economy.
As a result of their advanced waste management policies the 50000 garbage dumps have been transformed into 70 incinerators, 60 biological and mechanical waste processing factories and 800 units producing compost from organic waste³.
One of the most innovative recycling solutions that Germany has promoted is the green dot system – a system that has been replicated in many forms across European Union countries and is a prime example of “producer responsibility” in practice. Manufacturers and retailers have to pay for a green dot on the packaging of their products. The more packaging, the higher the fee creating an incentive for businesses to reduce packaging and facilitate recycling. This system has led to less paper, thinner glass and less metal been used therefore reducing the amount of waste produced. The green dot scheme reduces the amount of waste by 1 million tonnes every year⁴.
Austria is a small country doing big things in waste management. They have been successful with a number of traditional initiatives to separate recyclable waste and reduce landfill using taxes and incentives.
A more innovative approach is that of an Austrian biotech company which has developed a new high-tech method of waste management which uses fungal enzymes to recycle PET. The PET is broken down into its monomer building blocks by the enzymes which can then be converted back into more high-value polymers. By using bioengineered fungal enzymes, the recycling of PET plastic can be done “naturally”, without the production of any new by-products, with less new production materials having to be made using petroleum and 100% of the material recycled can be used. Up until now PET could only be recycled by incinerating or grinding it into an inferior material⁵.
Belgium is also a top performer in waste management, it possesses the best waste diversion rate in Europe: 75% of their waste is reused, recycled or composted; all helping to reduce overall waste generation⁶.
As well as comprehensive legislation, Belgium has introduced two sophisticated waste management techniques: the Ecolizer and the green event and assessment guide.
The Ecolizer tackles the waste problem at source. It is a web-based calculator that helps promote sustainable design and clean low waste production that enables designers and companies to assess the environmental impact of their products. It takes into account processing, transport, energy and waste treatment to discover ways of reducing the impact of these variables by changing design. For example, it is possible to calculate the environmental footprint of a coffee machine by finding the scores of the different variables and then assessing what changes in design could be made to reduce its environmental impact⁶.
The green event and assessment guide is another digital tool that is used in Belgium in the fight against waste generation. It allows event organisers to calculate the ecological impact of their events and is even able to prevent waste during them. Their website also has a list of places that lend reusable cutlery for events in a bid to promote best practice and promote eco-friendly businesses⁶.
These are some impressive examples of how sophisticated waste practices can help reduce waste and save scarce and valuable resources. Let’s hope they all keep up the good work and inspire other nations to adopt more sophisticated waste management systems!