The Recycling Dilemma: Good Plastic, Bad plastic? (

When it comes to recycling and recyclability, very little, it seems is straightforward — even something as seemingly simple as orange juice can present a conundrum. In Germany, many smaller shops sell drinks in cartons or plastic bottles, both of which will end up in the yellow recycling bin. But how do their recycling credentials stack up?

“As far as recyclability is concerned, the plastic bottle is probably slightly better because it is likely only made from one plastic, and so is easier to recycle than a multilayer material like a beverage carton,” says Rolf Buschmann, waste and resource expert with the German environmental organization BUND, who worked on the group’s 2019 Plastic Atlas.

He explains that only the paper part of the drink carton would be recycled — everything else, including the plastic coating or layer or aluminum foil, would be incinerated as residual waste.

More and More Multilayer Packaging
How easy is it to recognize multilayer packaging? With drink cartons, it’s usually obvious that they’re made from a combination of different materials, but with other products, such as candy wrappers, it’s a different story.

Such packaging can be made from a complex mix of up to 10 different films of plastic, which as Joachim Christiani, managing director of German recycling institute cyclos-HTP, explains, is invisible to consumers.

“In recent years there’s been a trend toward so-called multilayer packaging, which is extremely light and thin. It saves material as well as CO2 emissions during transport, but can’t be recycled,” Christiani says.

Because it is not possible to melt the different plastics together, or — at least for now — to separate the individual films from one another at recycling plants.

Lack of Recycled Plastic
A 2017 cyclos-HTP study into the recyclability of conventional packaging waste concluded that a third of it was not recyclable, and only 40% of the remaining two-thirds was made into plastic recyclate. The rest was used as fuel — in other words it was incinerated.

“There was no economic or political pressure to recycle more than this amount,” Christiani says. “The prescribed recycling quotas were met, and there were not nearly enough recycling plants.”

Another 2017 study by the chemical and waste disposal industry also shows that to date, Germany has not made much use of recycled plastic. According to the findings, plastic recyclate accounted for only 12% of the total amount of plastic processed in Germany — just under 1.8 million tons. The share of new plastic, on the other hand, was more than 12 million tons.

Room for Greenwashing
According to a 2018 survey by Germany’s vzbv consumer protection association, most consumers would like to see more plastic recycling, especially when it comes to packaging.

Although some products come in packaging that is advertised as being “made from recycled material,” Elke Salzmann, a resource protection officer with vzbv, says that can be misleading.
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