28 Mar 2023

Recycling expert Dr Spoo insists 'in Germany we need to do better'

With his environmental consulting business specialising in recycling, Dr Helmut Spoo is well positioned to talk about the challenges following International Recycling Day on March 18.

In an exclusive interview with the IFA newsroom, we ask Dr Spoo about raw material extraction, circular economy, and how Germany is faring when it comes to recycling.

You have been an expert in this field for years with your business Dr. Spoo Umwelt-Consulting. In your opinion, how does recycling fare in Germany?

The current situation is not satisfactory, we are still a long way from the circular economy. One reason is that we have a lot of laws and regulations including the return of old devices, but there are still many problems when it comes to implementation.

For example, according to the Packaging Ordinance – now the Packaging Act – there are obligations to take back packaging as well as corresponding information obligations in the sales outlets. However, I have yet to see any hardware store that fulfils these obligations, such as pointing out the possibility of returning packaging for packaging containing hazardous substances.

The situation is similar with old electronic devices. By no means does every point of sale that is legally obliged to do so meet its obligations to take back old devices and provide information to customers on how they can do so. And the authorities that are supposed to enforce this have such thin staffing levels that there are hardly any controls. One consequence is that old devices – and thus raw materials – migrate abroad, although we have good opportunities for raw material recovery here.

We currently have a return rate for electronic devices of 43% to 45%, but that should be higher and, since 2019, it should have been around 65%.

We can remedy the situation with more collection points for old devices by ensuring that all sales outlets that are obliged to do so also meet their obligations. In addition, voluntary collection at existing and easily-accessible locations would ensure further material flow.

Not all products that are now at the end of their life were designed with a circular economy in mind. Could enough substances still be fed back into a cycle?

In the past, no focus was placed on repairability and the possibility of dismantling with material separation during device development. A new purchase in the event of a defect was simply more interesting for some manufacturers.

This will change in the future because the repairability of products will become a recognisable criterion for consumers, just as energy consumption is today. It is also positive that there are more and more manufacturers who – even without a legal obligation – include repairability in their device development.

Many raw materials are scarce and extraction can lead to political or ecological problems. Can waste as a supplier of raw materials make a contribution to improvement this?

Even in the future, we will not be able to do without primary raw materials which we have to import or mine in our own country. But there is also considerable potential in our waste. This potential is underutilised. We can separate and sort much better and thus recover the various raw materials in higher quantity, and recover better quality raw materials. In addition to the reduction of imported raw materials, recycling also has a significantly lower environmental impact than primary raw material extraction, for example when recycling rare earth metals.

There are also positive effects on the climate, because the use of energy for waste recycling and the release of CO2 is significantly lower than it would be if you were mining, extracting and then transporting raw materials.

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