Green Extremes: Germany's Failing Environmental Projects

16/03/2012 15:43:34

The energy-saving light bulb ends up as hazardous waste, too much insulation promotes mold and household drains are emitting a putrid odor because everyone is saving water. Many of Germany's efforts to protect the environment are a chronic failure, but that's unlikely to change.

Spiegel online By Alexander Neubacher

Germans support protecting the environment, and they have a special relationship with nature. They like animals and plants, blue skies and the ocean. They want their children to grow up in an intact environment, and try to set an example for others. When it's time to save the world, the Germans are there, doing their utmost. They are determined that conservation efforts won't fail because of them.

Germany used to declare war on its neighbors. Today we explain how they can renounce nuclear power. We've lost the title of the world's top exporter and only manage to come in third place in global soccer rankings, but no one can get the better of us when it comes recycling our waste. Acid rain and forest decline have opened our eyes to the destructive force of civilization from an early age, even though Germany's forests, contrary to expectations, have somehow survived.

Our newest goal is to minimize our ecological footprint. Thursdays are veggie days, and old-fashioned, hand-cranked washing machines are back in vogue. Websites offer environmental tips for all kinds of situations, from cosmetics based on the phases of the moon to vibrators made of plastic without toxic chemical softeners. There are urns made of cornstarch and coffins made of cardboard, so that we can embark on our final journey in an environmentally correct manner -- a final good deed before everything turns to compost.

When something benefits the environment, the need to justify it suddenly disappears. The green label eliminates all controversy. And political parties are essentially in agreement that society cannot do enough for the environment. No progressive politician wants to expose himself to the career-ending suspicion that he lacks environmental consciousness.

Outcome Ignored

Because environmental policy pursues noble goals, politicians who specialize in the environment have a moral advantage over those who deal with issues such as government finances, domestic security or pension contribution rates. The positive aura in the German Environment Ministry is so strong that it even managed to bathe a technocrat like former Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin in a soft light. Current Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a cool-headed strategist who, only a few years ago, would have liked to become the managing director of the Federation of German Industries, now plays the environmental saint, riding his bicycle to meetings with the chancellor.

In legislative procedure, politicians address environmental problems with bureaucratic thoroughness. It's no accident that Germany's Environment Ministry emerged from a department at the Interior Ministry. Because protection of the environment usually involves burdens, or at least inconveniences, for the economy and consumers, strict planning, control and enforcement are indispensible, with police and regulatory law providing the necessary instruments.

In the end, it isn't even all that important whether an environmental protection measure achieves the desired outcome. The can deposit has not only eliminated cans from the market, but has unfortunately also spelled the death of the environmentally advantageous deposit bottle. No bother, the system will remain as it is.

So what if fine particle pollution levels are skyrocketing in environmental zones? The requirement for vehicle permit stickers will be expanded. Contrary to expectations, energy consumption rises in summer. And? We'll still change our clocks when the seasons change, first setting them forward by an hour and then back by an hour.

We buy organic food, put E10 in our gas tanks and switch to green electricity. Our roofs are covered in solar panels and our walls plastered with insulation. This makes us feel good about ourselves. The only question is: What exactly does the environment get out of all this? Let's take a look at our systems for dealing with garbage, water, light and insulation.

 

Garbage

I sort my garbage. There are four symmetrically arranged containers in front of my front door: a blue one for paper and a yellow one for plastic on the right, along with a brown one for compost and a gray one for everything else on the left. It doesn't look very nice. It also stinks a little, especially on summer days when I wouldn't mind sitting outside. But I know that I have to make sacrifices.

 

The German ordinance on packaging is respected, and the product recycling regulations are held in high esteem. According to the rules of Germany's dual system of waste management, when yoghurt containers are put into the recycling bin, they have to be "completely empty," "drop-free" and "spoon-clean." Some people even put the containers in the dishwasher before stuffing them into a yellow recycling bag.

But then something strange happens. My yoghurt container, which I've carefully rinsed and sorted, isn't recycled at all. In fact, it's dumped into an incinerator with all the rest of the garbage and burned.

Yes, this is allowed. By law, the dual system is required to recycle exactly 36 percent of plastic waste. Waste disposal companies can do what they want -- and what is most cost-effective for them -- with the remaining 64 percent. As a result, much of it ends up in waste incinerators for what's called "thermal recycling," bringing the cycle to a sudden end.

The federal government's council of experts on environmental issues has argued for years that the entire system needs to be fundamentally reconceived. In principle, two garbage cans ought to be sufficient, say experts: one for moist garbage like food waste and diapers, and the other for everything else.

The moist waste would first be used to generate biogas, and then it would be incinerated. The dry waste would be sorted automatically and as much of it as possible would be recycled. The concept has many advantages. It's less work for citizens, for one thing. It would help the environment, for another. Everything would be easier.

But nothing will come of it. Instead, a dispute has now erupted between private and municipal waste disposal companies over who is responsible for which waste. As a result, we recently got a fifth garbage bin, the "valuable materials bin."

When I came home from work one evening, there it was: bright orange with a capacity of 240 liters. Now there's even less room in our driveway, but I'm sure I'll get used to it. I'm even thinking of getting a sixth bin for waste glass, which we've been keeping in a makeshift box at the basement staircase until now. Six garbage cans would also restore symmetry.

 

Water

Showerhead technology has undergone rapid development in recent years. Less water, more air, says the European Union's environmental design guideline. Gone are the days when it was enough for a showerhead to simply distribute water. Today an aerosol is generated through a complicated process in the interior of the showerhead. The moisture content in the resulting air-water mixture is so low and the air content so high that taking a shower feels more like getting blow-dried.

 

The government is even teaching our smallest citizens how important it is to treat precious water responsibly. The Environment Ministry's children's website admonishes them to "Think about how you can save water! Taking a shower is better for the environment than taking a bath. Turn off the water when you're soaping yourself. Never let the water run when you're not using it. And maybe you can spend less time in the shower, too."

This is all very well and good, but there's only one problem: It stinks. Our street is filled with the stench of decay. It's especially bad in the summer, when half of Berlin is under a cloud of gas.

A "Competency Center" established by the Berlin Water Authority recently published a list of the neighborhoods where the problem is especially egregious. Ironically, the upscale Gendarmenmarkt square tops the list. Pariser Platz, at the Brandenburg Gate, smells like a diaper pail. It isn't just a problem in Berlin. Entire neighborhoods are also affected in Hamburg, the northeastern city of Rostock and the western Ruhr region.

Our consumption has declined so much that there is not enough water going through the pipes to wash away fecal matter, urine and food waste, causing blockages. The inert brown sludge sloshes back and forth in the pipes, which are now much too big, releasing its full aroma.

The water authorities are trying to offset the stench with odor filters and perfumed gels that come in lavender, citrus and spruce scents. But toxic heavy metals like copper, nickel and lead are also accumulating in the sewage system. Sulfuric acid is corroding the pipes, causing steel to rust and concrete to crumble. It's a problem that no amount of deodorant can solve.

The waterworks must now periodically flush their pipes and conduits. The water we save with our low-flow toilets is simply being pumped directly through hoses into the sewage system below. On some days, an additional half a million cubic meters of tap water is run through the Berlin drainage system to ensure what officials call the "necessary flow rate."

Germany has a lot of water. It has many rivers and lakes. The amount of rain that falls from the skies over Germany is five times as much as the entire water requirements of the entire population and industry. Less than 3 percent of the country's water reserves would be enough to supply all households.

The obvious solution to our pipeline problems would be to use more water again. But that's not how the Germans work. People who have been urged for so long to use as little water as possible when taking a shower don't just toss their habits overboard. The conservation appeals have created deep imprints in our psyche.

 

Light

Mercury is a dangerous substance. It evaporates at room temperature. Even small amounts can damage the liver, lungs and brain. Paracelsus, the famous physician, inadvertently killed himself with mercury. Since then, doctors have advised against inhaling it.

 

This makes the renaissance of the toxic heavy metal in our homes all the more astonishing. Like all good Europeans, we are in the process of replacing our old light bulbs with modern energy-saving light bulbs. This is what the European Commission has decreed. The fact that each of these new light bulbs contains up to five milligrams of mercury is seen as a necessary evil, because they consume less electricity than conventional light bulbs.

We're having trouble saying goodbye to the old light bulbs, which we liked. They came on immediately when we flipped the switch, which is something our new light bulbs can't do. And you can't drop them onto the floor either, because if you do the environmentally friendly light bulb becomes an eco-killer.

"Inhaled mercury enters the brain through the bloodstream," says Gary Zörner of the Laboratory for Chemical Analysis in Delmenhorst in northern Germany. "And every bit of mercury makes us a little more stupid. It can lead to total derangement."

Scientists with the German Federal Environment Agency have done tests to determine how dangerous energy-saving light bulbs are. They broke bulbs from the product line of a European brand-name manufacturer. Then they measured the concentration of toxic materials in the air of the room, once after five minutes and a second time after five hours.

All readings were well above permissible levels. In some cases, the mercury level was 20 times as high as the benchmark value. Even after five hours, there was still so much mercury in the air that it would have endangered the health of pregnant women, young children and sensitive individuals.

Because of the mercury, throwing broken energy-saving light bulbs into the ordinary trash is of course prohibited. A waste disposal company from Nuremberg in southern Germany has invented a machine that carefully cuts apart each light bulb and sucks out the fluorescent material and mercury. The mixture is then packed into airtight bags and filled into blue, 300-kilogram barrels. The barrels are loaded onto a truck and taken to a former salt mine in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. Thus, the energy-saving light bulb ends up in an underground waste depot, where it will remain forever as contaminated waste.

 

Insulation

First the cherubs and ledges are knocked off from the façade. Then the plaster and the pediments are removed. The old wall disappears under insulation panels as thick as mattresses, which are then painted, and suddenly the old house is an energy-efficient house. The old decorative elements, which are now missing, are simply painted onto the exterior. It doesn't make much of a difference visually, at least from a distance.

 

Strolling past the historic brick structures in the Dulsberg section of Hamburg, Albert Schett of the city's monument preservation office points out the acoustic difference between insulated and non-insulated houses. "Listen," says Schett, as he taps the facades, which now consist of an insulating layer covered with imitation brick. "It sounds completely hollow." But what wouldn't we do to save a few liters of heating oil?

There is another problem, however: the people who live in these thermally insulated houses and are complaining about their "poor ventilation behavior," as a brochure published by the Federal Office of Construction calls it. Unfortunately, it's all too often forgotten that any insulation changes the interior climate. For example, it can lead to mold spreading in places where it would never have been expected, like inside the roller shutter box, behind radiators and underneath the windowsill.

When mold has penetrated supporting beams, the house has to be abandoned, particularly as the insulating panels become increasingly moist over time. "It's like putting on a wet sweater on a cold day," explains a construction expert. "Yes, we're becoming the world's best insulators," says Boris Palmer, the Green Party mayor of Tübingen near Stuttgart, "and yes, we are deliberately spoiling our building stock."

 

What Can We Do?

It would be nice if we would occasionally subject our certainties to a reality check. If it turns out that we made a mistake, there is nothing wrong with taking a step back and trying something different. A can deposit law that also eliminates the environmentally friendly deposit bottles should be thoroughly reformed, and so should the subsidization of inefficient solar energy, some of our insulation regulations and plastics recycling.

 

No one should be forced to bring toxic mercury-containing light bulbs into the house. It doesn't make sense to shut down more nuclear power plants if it just makes us dependent on imported nuclear electricity from France. And as long as a disposal paper bag is worse for the environment than a plastic bag, the green morals police should think about whether it's the plastic bag that they should be banning.

People who shop in organic grocery stores, eat a vegan diet or drive an electric car are free to do so. But this should not give them the right to lecture others on the environmentally correct way to live their lives. Things are sometimes more complicated than they seem at first glance.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan