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Umweltverschmutzung durch Plastikmüll

The problem of plastic waste: what happens to our waste?

Germany celebrates itself as the recycling world champion. We separate every type of waste: residual waste, paper waste, yellow bags and organic waste. We detach the paper from the yoghurt cup and throw it in the respective rubbish bin. Large supermarket chains and drugstores no longer issue plastic bags and are gradually doing away with superfluous packaging. And yet the media is full of the fact that we have a huge problem with garbage. Plastic ends up in the sea and in the environment, 660 animal species are threatened with extinction by the garbage. But how is that possible when we have such a great waste separation and recycling system in Germany?

The facts

What we colloquially refer to as plastic is actually plastic. It is called plastic because it is a substance that does not occur in nature but is man-made , namely from the limited raw material petroleum . It is chemically unstable, which means that the state of the materials changes with temperature fluctuations and the plastic decomposes very slowly. It does not simply disintegrate, but is increasingly crushed by friction from the outside. This is exactly why the material has become an indispensable part of our everyday life: it is durable and versatile and can be used as a yoghurt pot, car tyres, fishing net, in mobile phones, computers or toys - the list could go on and on. However, a normal plastic bottle alone needs 450 years to decompose.

Plastic bottle pollutes environment

Where does our plastic waste end up?

Sure, he comes in the yellow sack. (And that, by the way, only since 1991, before that all plastics were disposed of with residual waste or landfills.) But what happens to your old toothbrush and your tofu packaging afterwards?

According to the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), almost 6.15 million tons of plastic - i.e. plastic waste - were produced in 2017 . Of this, 99.4% of all plastic waste was recycled. But that doesn't mean they were actually recycled. Just under half (46.7%) was used as a material or raw material, i.e. reused. The other half was energetically recovered, i.e. burned, partly in landfills or as a substitute for fossil fuels. This is not only less environmentally friendly than recycling, but also requires more energy.

The overall recycling rate is therefore not very high. This is primarily due to the fact that some of the plastic cannot be recycled . There is a great abundance of different plastics and many plastics are not available in one type, as they are either mixed with each other or substances are added to them. However, only single-variety plastics can be properly recycled .

Germany also exports up to a million tons of plastic waste every year, e.g. to Malaysia, India and Indonesia. The absurd thing about it is that the waste is then considered recycled in Germany, although a proper recycling process in the destination countries often cannot be guaranteed. What is sold to us as recycled may actually be in illegal landfills in the rainforest or washed into the sea .

separate waste properly

One problem with disposal is that most people don't know what goes in which bin. You might think that everything made of plastic belongs in the yellow sack? That's not true! According to the "Green Dot", light packaging, i.e. packaging made of metals such as aluminum and tinplate, composite materials such as beverage cartons and packaging made of plastic, belong in the yellow bin or yellow bag . Your old toothbrush, for example, doesn't belong in it. The recycling process can only work well if it is properly separated . The Green Dot itself has provided a clear "separation aid " that you can easily download. Nothing can go wrong now! But why is there such a huge amount of packaging waste?

plastic waste on the beach

Why is there so much plastic waste?

The market for packaging materials is a gigantic branch of the economy. According to the German Plastics Processing Industry Association (GKV), the plastics industry generates sales of 63.7 billion euros in Germany . Because in addition to the use of plastic for the products themselves, such as in the construction of airplanes or cars, the product packaging in particular is crucial for the high level of production. As already mentioned, plastic is very flexible on the one hand and stable and durable on the other. In addition, it is significantly lighter than other packaging materials, so that less kerosene or fuel is required to transport the goods, for example.

The solution: avoid plastic waste

As you have seen, the recycling process in Germany is far better than it was before 1991, but there are also a few points of criticism that prevent direct and simple reuse. In addition, too much plastic is simply burned. The simplest solution is still to do without the material more and more. But unfortunately that's not enough. We also need change on a political and economic level. We want to tell you what the status is like in a new post. So stay tuned!

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