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German Recycling System in Danger of Being Dumped

September 2, 1993

BONN, Germany (AP) _ Germany’s extensive system for recycling plastic is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and may be abandoned next week. That could be disastrous for struggling German industries, which would have to take on the costly burden of disposing of used plastics from their products.

Waste companies now handling the disposal of recyclable plastic are owed $522 million and they announced Thursday they will stop all pickups unless paid $120 million immediately.

″There’s little hope the system can be saved,″ said Frank-Rainer Billigmann, director of the association of waste management firms.

The recycling system, begun in 1991, is a product of a confident and wealthy German society ready to spend what was needed to dispose of any problem, be it unemployment or trash. But the economy has been hurt by the worldwide recession and the high cost of absorbing East Germany.

The program, imitated since in France and Scandinavia, is financed by fees that manufacturers pay for the right to print a green dot on their products - a seal that permits them to be dumped in recycling bins.

But the program has become a victim of the avid civic-mindedness of German consumers, and the fraudulence of some companies.

About 85 percent of German households recycle everything from newspapers to beer bottles to plastic wrap, depositing the stuff in color-coded trash bins on every street. They are expected to deposit 400,000 tons of plastic trash this year, five times more than can be recycled.

And more than half the companies whose products carry the green dot are not paying their fees, according to Duales System Deutschland, a private, non- profit consortium that runs the recycling program.

This means Duales System has been unable to pay companies contracted to pick up the used plastic and take it to recyclers.

If the trash haulers stop all pickups and Duales System collapses, plastic could not just be dumped with other garbage. Under the 1991 recycling law, responsibility for disposing of used plastic would revert to producers.

From industrial giants like Siemens to tiny factories, each company would have to take back the wrapping or containers its products were shipped in.

Foreign companies that export to Germany would have to take back their packaging, too, raising the specter of shiploads of styrofoam peanuts steaming back to the docks of Japanese electronics factories.

That would mean higher costs for German companies, which are steadily losing competitive position in the world because of high costs of labor and government regulation. Companies in western Germany have laid off about 500,000 people in the last year.

″It would be a gigantic problem for industry,″ said Irmtraut Hass, an aide at the German Industry and Trade Association.

Business leaders will meet with Chancellor Helmut Kohl on Monday to discuss ways to save Duales System, Hass said.

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