Yellow bags of packaging wasteClick to enlarge
Yellow garbage bags containing discarded plastic packaging
Source: Zauberhut /

Packaging is part of everyday life and serves a useful purpose. But there’s also a serious downside to packaging, as evidenced by the 16,6 million tons of it that were generated in Germany in 2012 alone. What can we do to mitigate this type of environmental impact? Which laws are already on the books in this regard, and what actions can we take as individuals?

Packaging in Germany

16,6 million tons of packaging waste were generated in Germany in 2012 alone; this figure breaks down as follows for the various types of packaging: paper and cardboard: 7.3 million tons; plastic and glass: 2.8 million tons each; wood: 2.7 million tons.


Just as there are many different kinds of packaging, there are also many ways to recycle it. For example, virtually all light packaging is placed in yellow bags or containers by consumers themselves. This waste is collected by companies (under the statutory “dual systems”) and brought to sorting facilities, where the packaging is sorted for recycling according to type, as follows: tinplate, aluminum, beverage containers, and the various types of plastic (PE, PP, PET, PS). Mixed plastic waste is to some extent further processed for material or energy recovery. Residuals from sorting get incinerated with recovery of energy.

Certain types of packaging require a return deposit, whereby reusable beverage containers remain in circulation until the bottling company retires them, e.g. because they are damaged or very worn. Via return deposits non-reuseable plastic beverage containers are extremely well recycable e.g. bottle-to-bottle or for fabric manufacturing purposes. After being collected in containers glass, jars and bottles are melted down to make new jars and bottles.

Transport packaging such as palettes, boxes and barrels are often reused and recirculated. If they are damaged, in the interest of ensuring safe transport they are either repaired or recycled.

Legal framework

Packaging allows products to be transported safely from point A to point B (transport packaging) and contains goods that the packaging protects (sales packaging). Partly packaging is compulsory necessary, but used for product display purposes (secondary packaging, e.g. folded boxes around toothpaste tubes or perfume bottles). Both the manufacture and transport of such packaging cause environmental pollution.

In the interest of stemming the rising tide of packaging, in 1991 Germany enacted the packaging ordinance (Verpackungsverordnung), and in 1994 the EU adopted the Packaging Directive. The German regulation was harmonized with the EU directive via enactment, in 1998, of a new version of the packaging ordinance. Since that, this regulation has been amended seven times to harmonize it with European law and current requirements.

The packaging ordinance is Germany’s first law to assign the task of waste management product stewardship to product manufacturers, who are required to take back the packaging that they have placed on the market and either reuse or recycle it, or have this done by a third party. Retailers are also subject to product return obligations. The return-deposit rule for certain types of disposable beverage containers aims to support reusable packaging, strengthen recycling, and reduce uncontrolled disposal of packaging waste (via garbage or littering). For Sales packaging typically  arising at the private consumers Manufactures and distributors have to take part in one or several compliance schemes (Duale Systeme) to ensure the collection and recycling of the sales packaging on full-coverage basis.

Recycling rates and current challenges

Recovery rates

The packaging ordinance stipulates that a minimum of 65 percent of all packaging waste is to be recycled annually, and at least 55 percent is to be used in recycled products (as opposed to being used as fuel). These requirements are being met, as the following figures demonstrate: in 2012, 96,3 percent of all packaging waste generated in Germany was recovered, 71.3 percent of it via recycling. The packaging regulation lays down the recovery rates for consumer-product packaging made of paper, glass, tinplate, aluminum, plastic and composites, whereby the statutory recycling rates for these types of packaging waste break down as follows and are in fact often exceeded: plastic: 36 percent; aluminum and composites: 60 percent; tinplate and paper/board: 70 percent; glass: 75 percent.

Current problems

Unfortunately, besides correct licensed Packaging also  unauthorized packaging and non-packaging ends up in the recycling-bin or container when they get disposed., For economic reasons, such “unauthorized” elements are likewise recycled. And while this makes compliance with the rates very easy, such practices do not provide any additional incentive to step up recycling efforts. If packaging collection were expanded to a system including produkts the collected materials (Plastic, Metal and composites) in the same bin, this would make greater amounts of material available for recycling; and this in turn would reduce pollution. Various municipalities and counties have carried out pilot projects for, or have permanently instituted use of, a special type of recycling bin known as a Wertstofftonne, in which many types of recyclable materials can be placed, (plastic, metal, composites and partially more like electric appliance or wood); this has been done, for example, in Leipzig and Berlin. The UBA has conducted numerous studies that scientifically demonstrate the benefits of optimized collection of recyclable materials and of amending recycling regulations accordingly. The findings of these studies can be found under “Publications.”

The packaging regulation stipulates that the environmental impact of packaging waste should be avoided or mitigated, a goal that is supported by the waste hierarchy framework whereby packaging waste is to be avoided whenever and wherever possible. However, the principle of waste prevention still remains just that – a principle for which no actual law has yet to be enacted. But each of us can work toward achieving this goal (see the helpful hints box below).