I traveled to Freiburg, Germany to see a city putting circular economic practices to the test
Switching our energy system from fossil fuels to renewables is often seen as the primary solution as the world reckons with the reality of the climate crisis. Yet, there’s another switch the world needs to make, one that has to do with how we make and deal with trash.
Last Spring, I visited Freiburg, Germany to see firsthand a city pioneering a new way of managing waste. At the heart of Freiburg’s waste policy are circular economics, a model that eliminates waste by changing the way we design, consume, and dispose products.
The linear economy & its plastic problem
The linear economic model we have in place in the US, also referred to as “take, make, waste,” is energy-intensive and incredibly wasteful. We take natural resources, manufacture products, use most products for a minuscule amount of time, and discard them (driving demand for more natural resource extraction).
The popularization of single-use plastic products around the 1960’s took the world’s “take, make, waste” mantra to another the next level. Never before was it so quick to generate waste, with products like plastic bags averaging a lifespan of just 12 minutes. Modern society’s insatiable hunger for plastic has increased exponentially in the decades since, driving the need for more and more natural resource extraction.
The vast majority (99%) of plastic is made from oil and gas. As such, stopping the consumption of disposable products is essential in the fight against fracking. Fracking not only extracts natural gas for energy, but also natural gas liquids (NGLs), which can be manufactured into petrochemical products such as plastic, paints, fertilizers, and resins.
A circular economic model offers a sustainable alternative. Instead of waste being the end of the road, this model incorporates recycling, reuse, and repair to loop “waste” back into the system. A circular model focuses on designing products that last and can be repaired or re-introduced back into a natural ecosystem.
Within the circular economy, there’s no need for single use plastics, and no need for fracking NGLs for plastic production.
Circular Economies in Practice
Principles of the circular economy are in practice across the world, with some cities making the commitment to “zero waste.”
Banning single-use plastic is perhaps the most popular and widespread circular economic practice, as seen in the graphic below.
Freiburg, a city with a population around 230,000, is often referred to as one of the most sustainable cities in the world. Traveling with the EcoLogic Institute’s program, POCACITO (Post-Carbon Cities of Tomorrow), we got an inside look at the ways the city is tackling waste, energy, and transportation.
Freiburg’s environmental movement took off in the 1970s, when the community rallied against a proposed nuclear power plant. In 2012, Freiburg was named the most sustainable city in Germany.
Walking through Freiburg, the city’s commitment to sustainability is evident – all new buildings incorporate renewable energy infrastructure, and there’s more traffic from bikes than cars. This eco-city also has a unique way to deal with waste.
The European Union established legal guidelines around waste in 2008, which introduced a five- tier hierarchy for waste management policy:
- Prevention of waste
- Preparation for recycling
- Other uses, such as producing energy
To achieve the first and most important priority, Freiburg’s public and private sectors have put extensive resources into public education and outreach campaigns. The city’s partially privatized waste management company, Abfallwirtschaft und Stadtreinigung Freiburg (ASF), works with schools and institutions to teach classes, hold competitions, and even incorporate theater into their outreach efforts. By implementing curriculum around waste in elementary school, eco-friendly behavior becomes second nature among the populace.
The entire country of Germany adheres to the European Union’s policies on plastic reduction and circular economics, but Freiburg has implemented additional measures to curb trash. To name a few, event companies participate in bans of disposable drink containers on public land and there are financial incentives for reducing personal waste (such as lower garbage collection fees for smaller bins and financial rewards for using reusable diapers).
As a result of these efforts, residents of Freiburg produce just 90 kg of non-recyclable waste per capita (each year), 26% less than the average in the rest of Germany.
Recycling & using waste
The second tier – preparation for recycling – involves separation of waste streams. Germany has separate collection bins and processing systems for food waste, green waste, paper, packaging, metal, glass, clothes, electronics, wood, batteries and even corks.
In Freiburg, households have bins collected weekly or biweekly for organic waste, paper and cardboard, and packaging. There are dozens of recycling centers throughout the city where residents dispose of the other items such as electronic waste, clothes, green waste, and metal, and there are hundreds of designated spots to dispose of glass.
An impressive 69% of the city’s waste is recycled thanks to these separate waste streams. Unlike in the United States, where recycling is often sent abroad for processing (or incinerating), Freiburg deals with the majority of waste streams locally.
Organic waste is taken to a digestion plant. Impurities (such as plastic) are removed and the waste goes to a mixing hopper, where added steam increases the temperature. This mix is taken to a fermentation tank to produce biogas.
The digestion plant produced an impressive 9,900,00 kWh of electricity and 7,500,00 kWh of thermal energy in 2013. After extracting energy, liquid residue is discharged and used as liquid fertilizer for farms, and solid material is dried and processed to be sold to gardeners and farmers.
When it comes to packaging waste (including packaging made with mixed materials), the cost of disposal is the manufacturers’ responsibility. Companies pay a licensing fee for their packaging based on its weight, incentivizing them to decrease waste. Their products are then marked with a logo, which indicates to consumers it can be placed in their household packaging bin. After collection, manufacturers are encouraged to reuse packaging material or recycle it into new products.
Paper and cardboard are collected and taken to a cardboard manufacturer in Germany, which produces 260,00 metric tons of cardboard per year. Scrap metal is collected and sold.
Residual waste (items leftover that cannot be recycled or composted) is incinerated at the Thermic Non-Recyclable Waste Treatment and Energy Generation Plant. The incineration process generates energy for household electricity and heat. However, a heavy reliance on incinerators takes efforts away from recycling and reduction efforts, and ideally, zero waste communities would drive out the need for incineration.
The outputs of these processes, such as energy and recycled products, make money that goes back into maintaining these systems. Additional money comes from the aforementioned packaging fees, and household fees for collecting and processing paper products, organic waste, green waste, and bulk waste as well as cleaning of organic waste bins. The amount a household pays depends on the number of people living there, the volume of residual waste, and collection frequency.
Unlike in the United States, Germany was pressured to reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills simply because there isn’t enough land to devote to this purpose. In fact, the country banned landfills altogether in 2005 .
The Eichelbuck Landfill, no longer accepting waste, is now the city’s largest solar installation, with a stunning array of panels built over the mound. The landfill’s panels meet the electricity needs of 1,000 people, and the gas from landfill is used to produce electricity for 3,300 houses and heat for 780 houses.
Energy and transportation
The City of Freiburg has also made impressive strides when it comes to renewable energy and sustainable transportation. The city aims to be carbon neutral and to operate on 100% renewable energy by 2050 – a goal that would entail halving their current energy consumption, increasing energy efficiency, and bolstering their renewable energy infrastructure.
Freiburg is one of the sunniest cities in Germany, receiving 1,800 hours of sunshine per year. There are solar panels on the soccer stadium, city hall, businesses, residential properties, places of worship, and as aforementioned, the former landfill. But 1,800 hours of sunlight doesn’t qualify as “sunny” by US standards; it’s less hours of light than in notoriously cloudy cities such as Seattle and Pittsburgh (which receive 2,170 and 2,021 hours, respectively), debunking the myth that solar only works in sunny regions.
In addition to solar, the city gets electricity from a hydroelectric system in the Dreisam River and wind turbines in the surrounding Black Forest. Freiburg also depends on combined heat and power plants (CHP), which use landfill gas, biogas, geothermal, and wood chips as fuel. There are also CHP plants that depend on imported natural gas. Despite significant strides towards renewables, Germany is heavily dependent on natural gas imported from other countries, primarily Russia (a reminder of the contradictory policy that many European countries have, that limit or prohibit fossil fuel extraction domestically yet import fracked gas from countries like the US).
Freiburg’s transportation system and city layout encourage walking, cycling, and public transportation. City planning prioritizes inner-city development to create a walkable city center rather than suburban sprawl. Car traffic has decreased in recent years thanks to 420 kilometers of bike paths, wide pedestrian zones, and 70% of residents living near a (renewable energy-powered) tram stop. A rail line connects the city to the surrounding region and a central train station for travel across Europe. As a result, the city averages far fewer cars than anywhere else in Germany, with just 428 cars per 1,000 residents.
Freiburg has faced challenges implementing the above practices – including difficulties in changing consumer behavior, continued dependence on fossil fuels, struggles with disposing electronic waste, and the challenge of managing issues associated with population growth such as rising rent. Yet, addressing these challenges has created new job opportunities and encouraged innovation.
Freiburg is leading the country in job creation and tourism. Over 2,000 people work in Frieburg’s solar industry in 100 different companies. The city’s sustainability initiatives have created 700 new jobs in environmental education and led to new degrees at the University, and there are 12,000 workers in environmental economics and research.
Circling Back to the United States
The principles of circular economies are alive and well in the United States, although there is a long way to go before we see cities achieving Freiburg-status. Many of the strongest examples of circular value chains in the US are businesses that have been around for decades, such as tailors, cobblers, farmers, and repairmen, and nonprofits such as Goodwill.
The growing awareness in recent years of just how much food, plastic, and other items we throw away has encouraged the growth of new organizations that create markets for waste from construction sites, grocery stores, and hotels. Cities are contributing by instituting plastic bans and other waste reduction policies, and providing bins for compost and recycling in public spaces.
Despite these efforts, the United States is stuck in illogical systems for making and managing trash and lacks the political will to implement large-scale circular economies. As a result, less than 10% of plastic in the US is recycled, and without domestic markets to process our recycling, the country is one of the world’s top exporters of plastic waste. Up to 40% of our food goes uneaten, into landfills, where it releases greenhouse gases. In 2010, the United States, almost 143 million tons of CO2 equivalent was released from the nation’s landfills.
US fracking boom fuels worldwide plastic crisis
Where the US has failed the most in waste management happens to be Europe’s top priority – preventing waste in the first place. Many of the world’s largest corporations such as Coca-Cola and Nestle encourage the linear economic model to keep us dependent on disposable products thereby creating an infinite demand to buy new plastic. The fracking boom has worsened this trend, as fracked wells open access to vast quantities of plastic feedstock (NGLs).
Seeing the writing on the wall for fossil fuels, the oil and gas industry is betting big on plastic manufacturing. According to investment analyst MSCI, “materials, rather than energy, may account for more than half of oil-demand growth by 2050,” and the industry is building infrastructure to increase US production of polyethylene plastic 40% by 2028.
International companies are building new plastic manufacturing facilities in the United States in an effort to take advantage of oil and gas reserves and industry-friendly policy. Royal Dutch Shell, PTT Global Chemical and Formosa are three such companies with plans to build new ethane crackers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Louisiana, respectively, to each produce over a million tons of plastic per year.
Even Germany is feeling the effects of the US fracking boom. The graphic below shows how the United States’ fracked NGLs make the journey to Cologne, Germany and other European countries to be transformed into plastic and other petrochemical products.
Yet, this push for oil and gas companies to invest in plastic could be the final straw that forces the collapse of the industry. This buildout will require tax breaks, federal loans, massive borrowing (from increasingly wary investors), and the time-intensive process of permitting these massive infrastructure projects – and all of that is taking place while communities around the world are banning plastic and demanding an end to fossil fuel extraction.
The rise of circular economics and zero waste communities across the world is essential in stopping the “fracking for plastics” boom.
The Future is Circular
Freiburg’s circular economy allowed the city to become one of the greenest cities in the world, while also becoming a leader in job growth and tourism. The city should serve as an example to the US that circular economy is a win for the planet and for people.
Of course, Freiburg has benefited from federal leadership that prioritizes the environment that the US doesn’t have. While Chancellor Angela Merkel committed to investing €54 billion to meet 2030 climate targets, President Trump has doubled down on withdrawing from the Paris agreement on climate change.
Yet Freiburg attributes its success to “environmental awareness of the population, political priorities, and targeted promotion of business.” Freiburg’s residents are demanding action, and demanding that politicians run on a platform of bold environmental change. They echo the sentiment felt across the world that national and international leaders are failing to protect us from the devastating impacts of climate change. Freiburg stands as an example that in this leadership void, the 21st Century environmental movement is led by local-level policy and loud activists demanding change, and even more importantly, the city proves that radically transforming the way we consume resources is possible.