Germany's garbage disposal goes green and lands in a mess.
Europe is in deep trouble. Its leading economies are stalled, its currencies in a tangle, its 'open trading' aspirations under threat and 17 million of its citizens out of work. And Germany, normally its most powerful engine of recovery, is not only overwhelmed by the costs and difficulties of East/West reunification but has also allowed itself to become mired in a huge and ridiculous domestic argument over the politically correct way to handle its rubbish.
Back in 1991, when world prospects looked much rosier and Maastricht was just the name of a pleasant little town on the Dutch-German border, the Bundestag, under unrelenting 'green' pressure, passed a law on the protection of the environment. Specifically, it laid down a stringent set of rules requiring retailers, wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers to take back and get rid of the sacks, cartons, crates, bottles and cans for whose proliferation they are collectively responsible. And it is not good enough just to burn or bury this mountain of stuff (which accounts for around one third of Germany's daily garbage collection): the great bulk of it has to be treated so that it can be thriftily put back into use. Statutorily-enforceable targets demand that, by 1995 (now only 15 months away), arrangements must be in place to recycle 72% of the country's glass, steel and aluminium packaging and an only slightly less onerous 64% of its paper, cardboard, plastics and 'composite materials'.
All this no doubt seemed eminently sound and high-minded when the legislation was being airily drafted. But the more that German industry tries to put it into practice and the deeper politicians and regulators find themselves entangled in its complexities so the consensus supporting it progressively unravels. Everything about it is starting to look irretrievably flawed. Yet no one so far has managed to summon up the will and determination to scrap the whole enterprise and start again.
Admittedly, one bit has already been rolled back, in the face of total unworkability. The initial idea, that consumers should have the automatic right to return used toothpaste tubes and detergent containers to the retailer from whom they had been purchased, was quietly scrapped when the shops demonstrated just how much wholly unproductive storage space this would require. So perhaps there is still some faint hope that common sense will one day reassert itself.
But even this concession offers only marginal assurance. The toothpaste tube problem has merely been moved one step further back down the distribution chain, and, there too, as the authorities are unhappily discovering, it soon starts to cost real money.
When Germany's top 600 producers realised that, however unwillingly, they had been recruited to become large-scale garbage collectors, they got together in a joint effort both to tackle the job and spread the financial burden. The result was the setting up of something called Duales System Deutschland (DSD), a non-profit-making co-operative enterprise whose remit is to collect, sort and generally dispose of the trash that its owners are deemed to have generated.
DSD shows every sign of becoming a monster - the kind of many tentacled bureaucratic monolith immortalised in the novels of Franz Kafka. It now services 96% of all German households, and its omnipresent collection bins - green for newspapers, blue for bottles, yellow for 'non-glass recyclables' and grey for general waste - are now an inescapable part of the national landscape.
To finance all this, plus associated recycling plants, DSD devised an ingenious ploy. It would only accept material, it said, which had been marked with a Green Dot, and for the right to use this crucial indication (which DSD naturally controlled) the manufacturers of the goods in question would be charged a substantial fee. This, predictably, proved wildly unpopular, and also (as a green dot is, in its nature, pretty easy to forge) widely evaded. So far DSD has run up losses aproaching £200 million, and the total shows every sign of getting out of control.
The next wheeze, therefore, is to start billing the members, as from this autumn, for every pound of their trash that DSD is required to deal with - 3p for glass, 6.5p for paper and a massive 50p for plastics. This, it is hoped, will generate an annual £1.8 billion from next year. But success is far from assured - already many German firms are finding it more economic to smuggle their rubbish abroad than pay an arm and a leg at home - and even if these figures are achieved, it is far from clear that they will cover the soaring price of the system.
Also, more and more critics are questioning its point. As every boy scout troop knows, there is a very limited demand for old newspapers, and that applies even more forcibly to the other candidates for recycling. Germany is already thigh-deep in stuff that is environmentally 100%, but which, unfortunately, no one is willing to buy, at virtually any price.
Worse still, Germany's EC partners (whose exports are very directly affected) are starting to grumble that the whole thing is turning into yet another restraint on trade. It is all very perplexing. But it certainly does little to help either Germany or Europe get back on a high-growth, world-competitive track.
Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.