In the late 80s, it was feared that we were doomed to choke on our own waste. It looked as if the waste disposal sites in Germany were going to overflow. There were too few incineration plants. At first public and political interest was focussed on making disposal sites safer and incineration plants cleaner. Politicians reacted quickly and adopted regulations for dealing with various kinds of waste, placed strict limits on emissions from incineration plants and imposed stringent requirements for the construction and operation of waste disposal sites. Municipalities and private disposal companies invested billions in environmentally sound waste disposal in order to meet the requirements.
It was soon recognized that safe disposal on its own is not enough. In addition, responsible resource management by recycling waste or energy recovery was necessary and waste avoidance had to be given the highest priority. The best way to accomplish that was for waste producers to be held responsible, conforming to the polluter-pays principle.
Producer responsibility was thus established. This calls for creating the prerequisites for effective and environmentally sound waste avoidance and recovery already in the production stage. Producers and distributors must design their products in such a way as to reduce waste occurrence and allow environmentally sound recovery and disposal of the residual substances, both in the production of the goods and in their subsequent use.
Producer responsibility was first laid down in 1991 in the Packaging Ordinance. It includes the obligation to take back packaging after use.
The Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act of 1996 comprehensively extended these policies. According to the Act, which was enhanced and transformed into the Circular Economy Act in 2012, producer responsibility can be implemented through legally binding measures (laws or ordinances) as well as through voluntary commitments on the part of the producers and distributors. Little by little, regulations on producer responsibility were established for vehicles, electrical and electronic devices, batteries and oil.
Phasing out the storage of biodegradable and other organic waste by June 2005 was another milestone in waste management. Since the 2005 deadline, established by the provisions of the 2001 Waste Deposition Ordinance (later incorporated in the 2009 Landfill Ordinance), treatment has been required for waste such as domestic waste and commercial waste similar to domestic refuse in incineration or mechanical-biological treatment plants. This is a permanent step preventing the creation of climate-damaging landfill gas and polluted leachate in waste disposal sites.
With these policies Germany has successfully developed a modern circular economy with a significant positive impact on the protection of soil, air, water and above all human health. At a time when resources are becoming scarcer and climate change is one of the great challenges of our age, the circular economy is making a significant contribution to climate action. Over the last years, climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions from waste management, in particular methane, the main component of landfill gas, have decreased significantly.
Currently over 250,000 people are emplodfyed in waste management, an economic sector with revenues of around 70 billion euros. There are more than 15,000 waste treatment plants in Germany.
Germany's waste recovery rates are the highest in the world and show how the circular economy contributes to sustainable economic production in the country by saving raw materials and primary energy.
The German government's environmental target is to further enhance the circular economy and transform it into a comprehensive materials flow management over the coming years. Through a rigorous application of waste hierarchy, particularly by separating waste, pre-treatment, recycling and the recovery of energy – but also by an increase in resource productivity – Germany aims to make as much use as possible of substances and materials bound in waste.