For the disposal association, the trade in waste is essential. Environmentalists criticize environmentally harmful “garbage tourism”.
BERLIN taz | Germany’s rubbish travels the world. Germany exported 25.2 million tons of waste in 2018, as the Federal Association of the German Waste Management, Water and Raw Materials Management (BDE) explains in a current report. Ten percent of this went to Asian customers. The greater part, 89 percent, stayed in Europe, a quarter of which went to the Netherlands, the country with Europe’s largest deep-sea port in Rotterdam.
With a 41 percent share, metals are the most important export goods, plastics only make up 4 percent. “The plastic littering of the world’s oceans is not based on the international trade in waste,” says Peter Kurth, Executive President of the BDE. For Kurth, imports and exports are “indispensable”, otherwise “no circular economy can take place”.
The export contrasts with 21.5 million tons of imported waste, mainly from the Netherlands, Poland and the Czech Republic. Imports are also necessary, not all countries in Europe have a functioning processing industry. Restricting the trade in waste would “do recycling a disservice”, said Kurth.
Thomas Fischer from Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) sees it differently. If the sale of waste to Germany is cheaper for other EU countries than setting up your own processing facility, that is exactly what prevents the development of a circular economy system. “We don’t need waste tourism,” says Fischer, we just keep “the incineration industry alive”. Fischer sees politics as an obligation and calls for the introduction of recycling quotas. There must be economic incentives for correct ecological action.
Small penalties for violations
With the corona crisis, foreign trade activities collapsed worldwide. In March and May, exports of waste plastic were a third below the level of the previous year. As a result, more waste was burned again. That justified overcapacities which, according to Fischer, should be “reduced” long ago. China has been declaring war on the flood of plastic since 2018 and drastically restricting imports; India followed suit at the beginning of the year. The waste streams are now shifting to other countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is now the largest buyer country. “Nobody is helped if the garbage caravan moves on,” criticized Fischer from the DUH.
The control of imported goods is the responsibility of the local authorities. If a country agrees to import, it must also show itself responsible for it, says BDE boss Kurth. He welcomed the fact that Asian countries were returning shipments that were criticized. In 2019, Malaysia returned 260 containers of waste, he quotes an Interpol report.
77 containers had to be returned to the USA, 43 to France and 42 to Great Britain. However, Kurth considers the fine of less than 1,000 euros per container to be far too low. Fischer sees the problem in precisely this responsibility of the target countries. The target countries often did not have the political structures to properly check that the processing was carried out correctly.