“At the time, nobody would have believed that Der Grüne Punkt would one day become a role model for similar enterprises all around the globe,” says Michael Wiener, CEO of Der Grüne Punkt, looking back now. “But this is precisely what the firm is today, and we’re proud of that. Der Grüne Punkt is the main reason why separating waste has become completely normal in Germany. Many similar companies have been set up along the same lines throughout Europe. And all over the world, countries are emulating our model, to develop collection and recycling systems for packaging waste.”
Originally set up as a non-profit-making organization, designed to steer the system about to be created rather than to run its own operations, Der Grüne Punkt has meanwhile become a group of companies geared to operate successfully in a competitive environment with production facilities for recycled plastics as well as its own product development division. Today, the group is a proactive major player in the following fields: take-back systems, development, production and marketing of secondary raw materials, and consultancy services for Design4Recycling and the use of recyclates.
Set up in 1990 by industrial and trading companies
In the late 1980s, Germany was facing an ever-growing mountain of refuse – the majority of residential waste was collected as residual waste and dumped on landfills, without being sorted and recovered. Klaus Töpfer, the then German Federal Minister for the Environment, therefore made it a requirement for first-time distributors of packaged products to take back the packaging after use and recover the materials concerned – or alternatively to commission a third party to do this for them, as long as they took on all the costs involved. Der Grüne Punkt was set up in 1990 in order to meet this requirement, anticipating the German Packaging Ordinance, which only came into force in 1991. In the period up until 1993, it established a second – dual – disposal system tailored for packaging waste, in addition to the public-sector disposal system for residual waste, bulky waste, etc.
The enormous costs for full-coverage introduction of the Yellow Bin, the Yellow Sack, bottle banks and the like had to be borne by industrial and trading companies. Since these costs were passed on to consumers, this initially meant packaging became more expensive – with the result that many companies cut down on packaging or opted for more lightweight packaging. In order to finance its activities, the Green Dot was introduced as licencing symbol. Much copied by other countries, the logo with its two green arrows became one of the best-known trademarks in the world during the 1990s.
Introducing competition in 2003
As the sole operator of the dual system, Der Grüne Punkt was not allowed to make a profit – but this changed in 2003 when competing firms entered the market in the wake of judgements by the European Commission and the German Antitrust Agency. Due to technical innovations and competition between the system operators involved, following the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering, the costs for the dual system were halved between 2000 and 2015.
“In this context, it must be noted that we have never been just your average company,” points out Michael Wiener. “What we do is very crucially determined by political decisions taken in Brussels and Berlin. Is waste to be separated at all, and if so, what is being separated from what, and what is to be recycled?” The Packaging Act, for instance, he continues, with its higher recovery targets, has made sure that companies taking part in the circular economy invest in new and better sorting systems. “We’re advocating sensible decisions. And we demonstrate what is actually feasible,” emphasizes Michael Wiener. In 2010, Der Grüne Punkt entered the field of recycled plastics production itself and is today operating two recycling plants for plastic waste obtained from the Yellow Sack, plus its own research institute, so as to develop new products from recycled plastics.
Innovative recycling of plastics
The recycling loop has been closed with plastic packaging like the bottles used by Werner & Mertz (“Frosch” brand), for example, that are made from recycled waste and can today be found on any retailer’s shelf: plastic packaging from the supermarket shelf is being made into new plastic packaging for the supermarket shelf. The basic material for this is Systalen, the plastic recyclate produced by Der Grüne Punkt. “As far as technology is concerned, it has long been possible to recycle plastic waste for high-grade re-use – but in terms of financial viability high-grade recycling hasn’t been making any progress,” to quote Michael Wiener. The reason is this: due to falling prices for crude oil combined with large production capacities, new plastics are getting ever cheaper, whereas plastics recycling has remained a niche business.
“It’s the same as with renewable energies: what’s needed is the political willpower to bring about a change – when left to its own devices, the market alone will not be able to achieve it.” What would be conceivable in Michael Wiener’s view, for example, is specifying minimum quotas for recyclate use for different plastic product groupings. The European Union has already introduced such a quota for PET beverage bottles: as from 2025, these must contain at least 25 percent recycled plastic. He is firmly convinced: “This clearly led to a more stable market for high-grade PET recyclates. And we need something just like this for other product groupings and other types of plastic.”
Innovative products made of recycled plastics – a prime example being a shower-gel bottle consisting 100 percent of Systalen that Werner & Mertz is using – are one of the prime reasons why Germany is still a role model for recycling all over the world. “Der Grüne Punkt continues to be the sector’s flagship,” says a confident Michael Wiener. “For the past 30 years, my colleagues and I have been working to live up to this claim, day in, day out. And we’re by no means finished – there’s much more to come!”