What does actually get recycled? We visited a waste management facility!

Bernd Bertram from the facility, my husband and I with our half-filled quart size/ 1 liter garbage jar after collecting for five months.

Here in Germany, most of us separate our trash almost religiously 😜. Well, not into as many categories as in Japan though, where everyone even cleans, cuts, folds and ties Tetrapak cartons into neat little stacks. Well, in Germany, trash is separated into

  • paper
  • the “yellow bag” (gelber Sack in German) for packaging – mostly plastic – plus cans, cartons, yogurt pots, bottle caps, lids and what not
  • organic: not only what is compostable, but also dairy, meat, and left overs 🍏🍗🍞☠️, not available everywhere (we do not have this option in our apartment building because our landlord does not want to)
  • glass, separated by color: white (which should be called “transparent” in my Opinion 😜), green, and brown (blue bottles can be thrown into the container for the green ones)
  • clothes and shoes
  • then there is a return system for PET bottles: A 0,25 € deposit on every bottle you get back when you return the bottle to the supermarket – but only for carbonated beverages, so not for PET bottles containing e.g. juice which is ridiculous!
  • and another return system for soda cans that works the same way as for PET bottle
  • batteries
  • toxic waste: nail polish (yup, that’s right, it’s toxic after all!), wall paint, and so on
  • electronics
  • bulk garbage: basically everything that is too big to fit into your garbage can – furniture, big picture frames, laundry drying racks, carpets… (no electronics)
  • the regular trash AKA “everything else” (Restmüll in German, which literally translates to rest = whatever remains, and Müll = trash/garbage)

It is common to think that separating your trash means everything apart from the “everything else trash” will get recycled. But does it really?

Part of our daily perception of reality is that this [points to a big pile of trash] disappears from our world. […] Of course, rationally you know it’s [still] there […]. But at a certain level of your most elementary experience it disappears from your world.” Slavoj Žižek in The Examined Life (while standing in a waste management facility)

So, it all started when I called our city last month because I felt that I only had a very vague idea about what actually happens to the trash after it gets collected. What does actually get recycled ♻️? What does not? What about bottle caps with plastic lining? What about prescription glasses? What about clothes and shoes?

Waste management facility

I had a lot of questions, but nobody seemed to be able to answer them. After I had tried calling a couple of times, I ended up on the line with Mr. Bertram, the distribution, logistics, and waste collection manager who patiently answered all of my questions and even offered to give us a tour!

So last Friday we had the pleasure of visiting a waste management facility for the very first time!

The waste management facility – EkoCityCenter in Bochum, Germany

This waste management facility sorts and processes plastics, metal, and wood, focussing on producing alternative fuel (refuse-derived fuel) out of these materials. Additionally, it also serves as a distribution center.

We did not visit the hall for the regular waste, because it is supposed to be really difficult to get the smell out of your clothes afterwards!

Mechanical digger sorting trash

I think everything looks a lot smaller in this photo… It was huuuge though! Just look at the mattress in the arm of the digger!

So at first we went into the hall for bulk garbage. The bulk garbage is pre-sorted by a a worker using a mechanical digger. Most of it is wood, and since wood burns nicely, so it will be used as fuel. Mattresses, sofas, and other things that would impact the caloric value or disturb the process in other ways are picked out and will be incinerated with the regular garbage later. Metal will be sold to steel mills.

Sperrmüll

The pre-sorted bulk garbage is put into this machine to be shredded and sorted further. All of it will be incinerated, but they have to be sorted by their calorific value (CV). So this machine sorts the pieces by size, and light things like plastics are swirled up and blown onto another sorting track. Easy yet effective, right?

Waste management facility

And the sorting track for the light things ends here! In the hall for the “yellow bag” (= packaging) waste!

Close up of plastic waste

Here is a close up – yikes! (It was smelly too, just so you know 😅…) I spotted many many PET bottles, which is a shame because PET, if collected separately, can be recycled relatively well – into clothes, carpets, or (non-food) containers. It is still downcycling (= made into lower-grade products) though.

Waste management facility - sorting plastics

All the packaging is than sorted in this hall full of conveyer bands! Only 15-20% of the plastics is fit for recycling. The rest is made into so-called refuse-derived fuel that will be used alongside traditional sources of fuel in coal-fired power plants.

A machine scans the surface of each piece and can determine what kind of plastic it is based on how the light is reflected. Here comes the problem with multi-layer materials, because the machine can obviously only scan the surface.

Conveyer bands

What cannot be recycled is sorted by calorific value. Most of it has a high calorific value and will be used as refuse-derived fuel in coal-fired plants to be burned alongside hard coal to generate power. Hard coal has a calorific value 24,000 kJ per kg. Plastics alone have an even higher calorific value of 35,000 kJ per kg, but because other materials are also in the mix the value will be around the same as hard coal in the end. Materials with medium calorific value of 13,000 – 14,000 kJ per kg end up as spare fuel for industrial in-house powerhouses.

Waste management facility

Before the waste is ready to be used as fuel, the metal bits needs to be removed. Iron and materials containing iron are “picked” out by a magnet. In machine on this photo the non-iron metal bits are positively charged and are then run across a plate with the opposite charge and so the metal bits get “ejected”. The metal is sold to the steel industry.

Infrared - waste management facility

And last but not least, this machines uses infrared light to detect and remove PVC. PVC contains chlorine and will damage the oven when incinerated with the other plastics. It will still be incinerated, but in another facility specialized on PVC.

Video tapes - waste management facilities

Video tapes stuck in the machine

Video tapes impair the machines because the tapes are tear-proof!! They should NOT be disassembled but put to the regular garbage as whole.

Waste management facility

This is only what fell to the ground and was swept to a pile, and yet it is more than what fits into a large garbage bag…

So if we were to put the content of our garbage jar in at the beginning of the conveyer it would only take five minutes to be sorted! That is pretty fast!

Q&A

Does the regular trash get sorted?

No, it does not.

Does the regular trash get landfilled?

In Germany, it is usually incinerated. “Landfills are closed for organic waste,” Mr. Bertram told us. Unfortunately, it is still the go-to option in most other countries, including (and not limited to) the U.S., the UK, France and Spain.

Does anything I throw into the regular trash get recycled?

Yes. After incinerating the metals are extracted and the “mineral slag” that is left is used to pave roads.

What about these Christmas trees?

They are collected and will be anaerobically digested by microorganisms in a biogas plant.

What about bioplastics?

Bioplastics cannot be processed with the organic waste, because it does not break down as fast as organic waste does.

The machines sorting the plastics cannot detect bioplastics, so it gets treated just like regular plastic, which means it will end up as refuse-derived fuel for energy generation.

What about Tetrapak cartons?

Like I said before, a lot of things that are supposedly “recyclable” contain too many different materials to be actually recycled. Tetrapak claims that their cartons are 100% recyclable. Well, they might be in theory, however, their cartons are among the most difficult items to recycle!

They consist of too many different layers and materials so they have to be chemically treated just to separate the materials! Which is why they need their own specialized facilities. There are only few in general and if I remember correctly only three in Germany. So they are mostly incinerated with the other plastic waste, and less than 50% of all collected cartons are trucked to one of the few facilities, across the country and often even across Europe, leaving a massive carbon footprint!

Worldwide, only about 20% of all these cartons are recycled due to its over the top package design! And quite frankly, Tetrapak cartons are completely unnecessary! Everything sold in these cartons could easily be sold in a freaking bottle that could be reused or at least easily recycled!

What about the plastic windows in envelopes?

This is the waste that came from a paper recycling facility

This is the waste containing plastic windows from envelopes among other things that came from a paper recycling facility

I thought that I had once read that the plastic windows in envelopes were now all made from cellulose, so they were basically sheets of very thin, see-through paper. Well, now I know that is not the case! While there are envelopes with said cellulose windows, most envelope windows are still made from plastic. So now I know better and will add the plastic windows to our trash count!

The paper is watered down and everything else – like the plastic windows – is removed and trucked to a facility like this to become medium calorific fuel.

Are magazines and other high-gloss coated paper recyclable?

Yes.

Paper recycling - waste management facility

What about stickers?

Stickers are NOT recyclable. In fact, if you stick a produce sticker onto a plastic bag that plastic bag cannot be recycled anymore!

What about prescription glasses? Or window glass?

Neither prescription glasses (made from glass, not plastic!) nor window glass can be recycled with bottles or jars due to different melting point.

Prescription glasses or window glass belong in the regular waste or count as bulk garbage depending on the size. It will end up as road pavement.

What about lids and bottle caps when collecting glass?

They will be sorted out in the process and – unlike prescription glasses or window glass – will not ruin the entire content of a glass recycling container.

What about clothes and shoes?

After being collected, clothes and shoes are sorted into up to 800 quality grades and sold, often to other countries. Only what is still good enough to be worn should be put into the containers for collection. However, some of what cannot be worn anymore or scraps of fabrics are sold to factories that use them to make rags. Mr. Bertram still advises to dispose of everything that is not good enough to be worn anymore in the regular garbage.

The global trade of secondhand clothing is the subject of controversial discussion. It has been said to be hurting local economies. Some countries like the Philippines have even banned the import of secondhand clothing to protect the local textile industry.

In my opinion it is best to donate still wearable pieces of clothing to local charitable organisations or to refugee hostels. Or try swap parties, sell your clothes to secondhand shops or even online. What cannot be worn anymore can still make a nice rag and help to keep your house clean 😉. You can also ask around if some crafty person is interested in fabric scraps!

Our Conclusion

It was super interesting to peek behind the scenes. We had seen many pictures of trash piles im facilities, but it was still very different to stand in front of this amount of garbage in person, seeing it right with your own eyes and being able to smell everything!

The amount of effort that needs to be put into managing our waste is enormous! First of all, the garbage needs to be collected by highly specialized vehicles running on gas. After collection, the waste needs to be sorted and transported to many other facilities, which does not only leave a big carbon footprint, but also causes logistic costs. It is very normal for the waste to be transported through all of Europe, and I am not only talking about material destined for recycling!

Even though most of it gets incinerated in the end, it still needs to be sorted and shredded beforehand and cannot just be incinerated as it is. After the sorting process, the waste – now called fuel – needs to be trucked to the coal-fired power plants or industrial in-house powerhouses.

By reducing the garbage we produce (AKA waste prevention), we help to reduce the amount of resources that need to be put into dealing with the waste! Just think about it – special vehicles need to be produced, facilities need to be built and maintained, the waste needs to be collected, transported and logistically managed, and of course all of it consumes a lot of electricity, gas, and other resources! Just to deal with what we carelessly throw away!

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14 Comments

  1. Wow, echt spannend! Irgendwie macht man sich als normaler Verbraucher ja viel zu selten Gedanken, ob man richtig trennt und was eigentlich wo landet… Schon toll, so ein detaillierter Einblick 🙂
    Liebe Grüße,
    Ela

    • Hi Ela,
      wir fanden das auch unglaublich spannend, mal einen Blick hinter die Kulissen zu bekommen :)!!
      Liebe Grüße,
      Shia

  2. It is also good to know that if you call one of those waste removal companies, they also recycle your junk if it can be recycled. Not all of your trash ends up in the landfill. Great Post!

  3. our Earth’s atmosphere is now liveable for mammals due entirely to the burial of waste organic materials – to ban burial of organic waste is not just absolutely ecologically illiterate it is misguided German Green Dogmatic insanity.
    Allan Jones BSc PGCE

  4. Zero waste! means “EU landfill tax” means EU nations shipping waste to other less regulated nations – means more ocean pollution and plastic waste ending up in the Oceans. German Green dogmatic Zero waste is not an answer it is a crime.

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