Dieter Beyer tried working with Germany's bureaucratic plastics recycling program, but the experience left him with a sour aftertaste - and an indictment. The government paid Beyer 14 cents per pound to accept mixed plastics. His firm, Beyer Industrieprodukte GmbH of Kreuzau, Germany, planned to use the plastic to make fiber-reinforced roofing tiles in Denmark.
In December, prosecutors charged his firm with landfilling 1.1 million pounds of waste plastics. Beyer blamed his Danish partners.
``I paid them money to buy equipment to make roofing tiles. They ran off with my money,'' he said.
Beyer's case earned critical attention in the German media because consumers believe a great deal of the plastic packaging they collect - at a cost of $1.33 per pound - is never recycled.
While other nations watch and consider copying Germany's model, German consumers and industry wonder: How long can the nation support a plan to collect far more plastics than the market can handle?
The German recycling zeal will reach another peak this summer when a new rule goes into effect mandating the recovery of 64 percent of post-consumer plastics packaging from the waste stream, up from 9 percent now. That means a recycling mandate for more than 1.1 billion pounds, from about 185 million pounds.
Yet Germany has the capacity to recycle about 551 million pounds of plastic, according to Claudia Schmitz, press officer for the German state organiza-tion in charge of recycling, the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Kunststoffrecycling mbH (DKR).
It was the same in 1993, when Duales System Deutschland (DSD), Germany's federally mandated, corporately funded materials recovery organization, reported it made 617 million pounds of plastic available to DKR for recycling, although itwas mandated to produce only 185 million pounds. Some 60 percent of the larger figure was recycled abroad, according to DKR.
This onrush of export excess has caused neighbors to legislate defensively. France's recycling law is designed in part to keep German plastics from flooding its domestic market. And the European Parliament, the body that loosely oversees industrial goals for the continent, has set a maximum 45 percent collection limit for domestic plastic packaging.
According to J. Winston Porter, president of the Waste Policy Center in Sterling, Va., and a former assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response at the Environmental Protection Agency, this makes German waste economically worthless.
``The Germans are flooding themarket with the plastics they can't use, but are mandated to collect,'' said David Perchard, aLondon-based plastics consultant who has published a book on the subject. ``France, Ireland and other countries are having to adopt similar laws to Germany or be overwhelmed with German plastic. The Green Dot [recycling program] is a political success, but a disaster for recycling and the environment.''
Harvey Alter, resources policy department manager at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, estimates that implementing the German program in the United States would add $9 billion annually to the cost of American solid waste management.
If the strict ordinance survives, it will be because of a reduction in the resistance of Germany's neighbors to the costs of recycling - not because they like recycling, but because they believe Germany has given them no other choice.
Europeans are, as a whole, more enthusiastic recyclers than their American counterparts, and the Germans are Europe's most aggressive recyclers.
German willingness to collect packaging is typified by Friedrich Nehl, third secretary of the Office of Science and Technology in the German Embassy in Washington.
``Eventually, the whole world will have some law as strict as Germany's,'' Nehl said. ``It's just a matter of time. You have to.''
Even when they can't recycle, Germans accept a change in the packaging mix more readily than Americans. Klaus Draeger, principal scientist for Procter & Gamble Co. in Schwalbach, Germany, said the company's 5-pound Ariel detergent refill bag, made of a plastic/paper laminate, reduces packaging material 80 percent. Its plastic is 25 percent ``post-user'' - both post-consumer and post-industrial. It is landfilled or burned more easily than it is recycled, yet ``it is what the customer wants,'' Draeger said.
Although P&G will not release sales figures, industry experts conclude that the same package in the United States - despite winning a Flexible Packaging Association award for efficiency this year - does not sell nearly as well.
For plastics, the German recycling system is expensive. DSD estimates its costs at eight times that of France's law, although the latter is similar to Germany's in that it holds manufacturers and importers of packaged products responsible for recovery of post-consumer plastics.
And Germany's model is getting more expensive for plastics processors, despite their Herculean effort to source reduce plastic packaging.
From October 1993 to October 1994, manufacturers were assessed disposal fees by DSD based on weight. Since October 1994, DSD has charged manufacturers by package unit to guarantee disposal. The practice allows greater weight per volume and thus discriminates against plastics compared with glass and metal packaging.
The European Federation for the Flexible Packaging Industry (FEDES) in The Hague, Netherlands, notes the fee for plastics
packaging for a 5-pound container of granular detergent has gone up 25 percent since the rate change; for 13 ounces of breakfast cereal the DSD cost has risen 28.3 percent; and for seven-hundredths of an ounce of plastic film to hold a half-pound of spaghetti, the charge has gone up 148 percent.
DSD is the most visible part ofa $2.75 billion collection and recycling program. The architect of the plan was Klaus Tupfer, formerly Germany's environmentminister, and currently the nation's housing minister.
One of several hundred medium-sized firms contracted by DKR to recycle plastics, Beyer's firm may have been caught dumping, or it may have been ripped off. But the fact remains that environment-conscious Germans collect far more plastic than they can process, so they must export large amounts of plastics - often to Third World nations - whose collection has been paid for by a corporate tax.
Tupfer estimated that a German family of four pays $125 per year to subsidize the system.
As a result of its 1991 Green Dot law, Germany has:
Galvanized the European Community, which set lower guidelines for recycling rates in November to keep Germany's used plastics from being dumped in other European markets. The 45 percent EC packaging recovery rate maximum and 15 percent minimum recycling rate is binding on all 15 EC nations, meaning that none can avoid recycling or serve as a dump by setting lower recovery or recycling rates.
Invigorated the chemical recycling industry, on a belief that breaking down the polymers in plastic packaging will be the only logistically feasible or fiscally responsible way strict German recycling limits will be reached.
Caused concern among German retailers, who have been struggling to keep household products prices down by ``cross-subsidizing'' - adding the profit from one product to the loss of another to keep prices uniform. Critics believe retailers soon will reach a price threshhold, forcing consumers to assume more of the costs of recycling directly as product costs rise to accommodate the mandated recycling charge.
Despite its domestic political popularity, the actual amount recycled under the German system is not significantly greater than that in the United States, according to Porter.
At the annual Council on Packaging in the Environment meeting, held in January in Atlanta, Porter noted the United States now has a 23.5 percent recycling rate - at one-third to one-fourth the cost of Germany's recycling program. The biggest problem with Germany is that ``they are trying to make all recyclables equal.'' But costs vary widely and the need to recycle everything in equal percentages is a false economy, Porter said.
Porter estimates Germans pay more than a dollar a pound to recycle plastics, while the American cost is in the range of 7.5 to 12.5 cents per pound.
Porter said achieving a 64 percent recycling rate is not possible without resorting to ``chemical recycling'' - which includes both depolymerization and incineration - in addition to post-consumer recycling.
Despite the new high percentage of required recovery and ris-ing domestic recycling capacity, DSD has pushed downwards its previous estimates of plastics recycling capacity needed to comply with the law.
Most of Germany's relatively young plastics recycling companies have based their operating costs on DKR's projections of five years ago. Smaller firms may fall victim to the industry's larger players, said Wilhelm Crossmann, technical manager for marketing statistics for theGeneral Association of German Plastic Converters, based in Frankfurt.
DKR's downward tonnage revision also precipitates more doubt on plans by BASF AG to establish a commercial-scale pyrolysis facility at its Ludwigshafen plant. The idea is being kept alive - as a test facilitythat will process 16,500 tons of material - until a formal decision is made.
A commercial pyrolysis facility could process 1.4 million pounds of plastics itself, its proponents note. BASF proposed charging DSD $180 per ton to dispose of plastics through its system.
But Crossman said BASF will have trouble getting enough money from the German government to cover pyrolysis costs.
``The subsidy that a recycler gets now is less than last year, because DKR now pays on a per-container basis, instead of by weight. That means more volume to process,'' he said.
Meantime, plentiful subsidized waste plastics have found a new market: The Kluckner Werke steel mill in Hamburg has pioneered a technique whereby it substitutes heavy oil with plastic granules in steel ovens to create chemical reactions.
With its technique, Kluckner has gotten around stiff German restrictions on plastics incineration.
``Our use of plastics was approved by the government only after we could prove to officials that we are not incinerating plastics but rather using them as so-called chemical agents,'' said Hans-Jurgen Blucker, director of the steel mill.
Blucker said crude oil had been used to produce free-forming carbon and hydrogen atoms in the steel-making process. When heated, plastic granules can accomplish the same.
By replacing crude oil with plastic granules, Kluckner in 1994 reduced its operating costs by $6.5 million.