It must be a disappointment to the organizers of the most aggressive recycling system in the world that government bailouts of their program are now not only necessary, but a continuing factor in their program's future. The German Duales System Deutsch-land, or DSD, extolled June 28 the weak news that in 1994 it collected $15 million more in fees from German plastics producers than it spent collecting used plastic. (DSD is funded by companies that exhibit the environmentally and socially acceptable ``Green Dot'' on recyclable packages, which tells consumers the package's manufacturer already has paid to have the bottle recycled.)
But DSD, the official plastics collection agency, now 5 years old, is still $686 million in the hole. Before 1994's surplus was tallied, the quasi-governmental DSD was $701 million in the red.
It's a money pit, plain and simple.
According to the agency, only ``adequate capital, the waiving of some of the debts incurred to support the Duales System and further [unspecified] cost reductions will guarantee the stability of the system in the long term.''
Only one body can waive DSD's debts: the German government.
Another nagging DSD problem is illegal piggybacking of the Green Dot: Some companies simply apply a green dot to their packaging without paying the required fee to DSD to recover that packaging from the waste stream. Still other companies have ignored the green dot idea altogether.
This serves to point out the fundamental absurdity of affixing a green dot in the first place: Once they got started recycling through the program, good Germans began recycling plastic whether it had a green dot on it or not.
The zeal of the German people to recycle is the alleged reason DSD collects many times the amount of plastic material that the country can recycle. But much of the surplus collected plastic is sold overseas in Third World markets at far less than its market value just to keep it from overwhelming the collection agency and the German countryside.
DSD cannot guarantee a domestic German market for used plastics, although that promise is implicit in the law that produced DSD. That law was formed without regard to the fact that virgin resin is still the major ingredient in plastic packaging, and plastics itself makes up an even smaller portion of landfill waste in Germany than in the United States, where the level is about 7-9 percent by weight. Those presumptions are DSD's Achilles' heel.
That German citizens willingly and faithfully follow their recycling law is a smoke screen for DSD, amounting to a convenient excuse for the agency to keep asking for a bailout from the government. When will they learn that selling surplus collected plastics in Malaysia at a discount, just to get the plastic out of the country, is merely another form of subsidizing plastic production in the first place?
The Germans ought to scrap their scrap law. They should come back with a much less stringent collection program providing distinct monetary incentives to foster returnable packaging: in short, fewer fees for collecting, more fees for reusing already-made containers.
King is Plastics News' Washington-based staff reporter.