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In recycling (sometimes abbreviated as RC ), recycling or waste recovery , waste products are reused or their starting materials become secondary raw materials .

The term "recycling" is a loan word from English ( recycling - pronounced [ ɹɪˈsaɪklɪŋ ] - for "reuse" or "reprocessing"); Etymologically it is derived from the Greek kýklos (circle) and the Latin prefix re- (back, again).

“Recycling” is defined as “any recovery process by which waste is turned into articles, materials or substances, either for the original purpose or for other purposes. It includes the processing of organic materials, but not the energetic recovery and processing into materials that are intended for use as fuel or for filling ”(Section 3, Paragraph 25 of the German Recycling Act ). The substances produced in this way are called recycled or regenerated material.

According to law, “recycling” is only used if the raw material was previously classified as “waste”; otherwise it is “ reuse ”. The colloquial use of the term recycling often includes both meanings.

Political goals

Furniture made from old tires (taken in East Timor )

According to EU regulations, the following waste hierarchy exists, which underlies all legislation and political measures in the field of waste prevention and management as a priority sequence:

  1. Waste avoidance: This includes, among other things, the ban on environmentally hazardous substances such as PCB and CFC .
  2. Preparation for reuse : This means that the goods can be reused as with returnable bottles or second-hand use.
  3. Recycling through material recovery: Defined waste material flows or parts thereof are processed in order to recover marketable secondary raw materials .
  4. other recovery, e.g. B. through energetic recovery : The materials are burned or gasified, but with the sole aim of generating energy.
  5. Elimination, e.g. B. by dumping .

Contrary to common usage, which is often somewhat unclear, recycling only includes point 3) of this list. According to the EU Directive, recycling is defined as any recovery process by which waste materials are turned into articles, materials or substances either for their original purpose or for other purposes. It includes the processing of organic materials, but not energy recovery and processing into materials that are intended for use as fuel or for backfilling.

Downcycling and Upcycling

A possible disadvantage, for example when recycling plastic waste, is that - if the effort is reasonable - the material no longer achieves the original quality or its processability as in primary production before the recycling process. This devaluation is also known as downcycling, while upcycling can produce higher quality products from waste materials from a process . Residues that arise during the recycling process of certain organic materials are called rejects .

The tendency of a polymer to degrade during reprocessing depends on the processing method chosen and on the respective base polymer type as well as the content of additives that can greatly reduce the thermal-oxidative degradation of the molecular chains during processing. In some cases, the recycled plastic certainly achieves the property level of the original goods. It depends on the quality and purity of the collected old parts as well as the preparation process and the addition of additives. The total energy consumption for reprocessing is also often overestimated. With no more than around 10 to 15 MJ / kg of polymer ( thermoplastic ), parts with an individual mass of more than 100 g can be completely processed (in this context, reference is made to the original literature from 1990 to 1997 and to the sources referenced).

Complete recycling is not possible in the reprocessing of nuclear fuel . However, after the fission products have been separated off and disposed of , the remaining components of the nuclear fuel can be used again for the production of new fuel elements .


World War II US government poster calling for food and metal waste to be segregated

Before industrialization, rubbish consisted mainly of human and animal excrement, food waste , broken clay or glass, and probably ashes from fireplaces. The oldest form of recycling is the traditional fertilizer use of plant and animal waste, particularly crop residues, manure and slurry , in agriculture , which is probably as old as himself. This complete recycling is based on subsistence farming . In ancient Rome the excrement was collected and sold to the farmers in the surrounding area. In the Middle Ages, this organization largely fell into disrepair - some of the excrement and rubbish were simply dumped on the street and, if necessary, “used” by pets. Later it was scrap and rag collectors who took care of the collection, sorting and forwarding of recyclable material. The “throw-away mentality” of the industrial era did not exist due to the lack of goods such as empty bottles, used wooden or metal objects and the like. It was a matter of course to use these items further. Food waste became pet food, bones and hair became useful things, and rags became paper. Wood and paper waste were burned and metal parts were melted down or forged anyway.

With the industrialization Also amount and composition of the waste altered so that the first in London Kehrichtöfen emerged, and later the first landfills . During the First World War , the collection of recyclable waste was also advertised with great propaganda success. When people became more and more prosperous after the world wars and could also afford luxury goods, which also included more elaborate packaging (bottles, aluminum foil, cling bags, tin cans, plastic bottles), the industrialized countries faced an acute waste emergency. A normal household that got by with around 150 things 150 years ago now used more than 20,000 objects, from toothpicks to hair fixers, from wardrobes to thumbtacks, and in the 1970s in Germany, for example, produced an average of 4 household waste, 7 kg per inhabitant and week, that is 244 kg per inhabitant and year. Most of this was no longer reused, but largely completely disposed of. Reuse was only an issue in times of need, especially during and after wars.

It was only with the emergence of the green movement in the 1970s / 80s that there was a rethink and the understanding spread that garbage disposal is one of the main factors causing environmental pollution . At the same time, on the one hand, there was an awareness of the limited nature of natural resources (for example after the oil shock of the early 1980s), on the other hand, landfilling became increasingly impracticable, for example in urban areas such as megacities . The first beginnings back to a new kind of recycling were the initially voluntary waste separation , which became the symbol of a whole generation in the western world. Starting from the recycling of waste paper, technologies have increasingly been developed that make the reprocessing of all types of waste materials economical, making waste an important economic asset: The expression secondary raw material was coined for this .

Recycling is also gaining in importance for elements whose occurrence is limited or whose extraction is complex. This is particularly true of the rare earths that are frequently used in the electrical and electronics industry and that used to end up in the garbage with the discarded devices.


Recycling rate Europe 2001/2011 in%
(municipal waste, selection)
W… mechanical recycling 2011
O… organic recycling 2011
country 2001 2011 ± W. O
EuropeEurope Europe * 26th 39 +13 25th 14th
BelgiumBelgium Belgium 50 56 + 06 36 20th
Czech RepublicCzech Republic Czech Republic 01 17th +16 15th 02
DenmarkDenmark Denmark * 27 50 +23 31 19th
GermanyGermany Germany 49 62 +13 45 17th
IrelandIreland Ireland 12 36 +24 33 03
GreeceGreece Greece 09 20th +11 08th 12
SpainSpain Spain 21st 29 + 08 17th 12
FranceFrance France 26th 37 +11 19th 18th
CroatiaCroatia Croatia * - 08th - 07th 01
ItalyItaly Italy 18th 32 +14 20th 12
LuxembourgLuxembourg Luxembourg 37 47 +10 27 20th
HungaryHungary Hungary 01 22nd +21 17th 05
NetherlandsNetherlands Netherlands 45 51 + 06 27 24
AustriaAustria Austria * 57 63 + 06 30th 33
PolandPoland Poland 04th 23 +19 09 14th
SloveniaSlovenia Slovenia 02 34 +32 29 05
SlovakiaSlovakia Slovakia 03 10 + 07 04th 06th
FinlandFinland Finland 34 35 + 01 22nd 13
SwedenSweden Sweden 39 48 + 09 33 15th
United KingdomUnited Kingdom United Kingdom 10 39 +29 25th 14th
IcelandIceland Iceland 16 15th - 01 13 02
NorwayNorway Norway 44 40 - 04th 25th 15th
SwitzerlandSwitzerland Switzerland 49 51 + 02 35 16
Source: Eurostat, 2012
small ... estimated data; *… Time series corrections


Scrap has been partially recycled since ancient times, iron parts by forging , for example . Especially in times of the war economy , metal objects of civil use are used for the purpose of obtaining secondary raw materials for the production of weapons , such as in 1940 under the motto metal donation of the German people .

The recycling of fibers from recyclable old clothes already dominated paper mills of the Renaissance . Waste paper recycling processes have existed since 1774, then described by Justus Claproth . Only later did it come to be used on a larger scale, increasingly in times of the war economy. With increasing environmental and cost awareness from the 1980s onwards, the demand for recycled paper grew considerably, so that the waste paper market is already competitive among recycling companies.

In the 1960s, which began DDR means Altstoffsammlungs actions and the SERO system of VEB Kombinat secondary raw material acquisition resources, including for the purpose of foreign exchange savings, systematically multiple use. There were fixed return prices for various old materials.

In the 1970s, environmental protection and waste prevention were declared the official areas of responsibility of the Federal Republic : in 1972 the first waste disposal law of the FRG was passed, in 1975 the waste management program '75 of the federal government and in 1986 the TA Luft for the avoidance of emissions from waste and its treatment. Later came the waste oil regulation , the packaging regulation and in 1996 the recycling and waste law (KrW- / AbfG). This law and the associated ordinances contain detailed regulations for the avoidance, recovery and disposal of waste. In principle, it was no longer primarily about capacity issues of landfills, but primarily about avoiding waste, if not possible to recycle it, and only if this is not possible to dump it (see § 4 Recycling and Waste Act) . The European Waste Catalog and the Dual System Germany ( Green Dot ) followed.

In 1994 the directive on environmental protection was included in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, where Article 20a states:

"The state is responsible for protecting the natural foundations of life and animals within the framework of the constitutional order through legislation and in accordance with law and justice through the executive and the judiciary."

The Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (ElektroG) has been in force since 2005 . This guideline made the EU member states obliged to set up a functioning e- waste recycling system by August 13, 2005 and to recycle at least four kilograms per person per year from December 2006. In addition to common electronic waste, LED and energy-saving lamps ( compact fluorescent lamps ) also fall under this guideline, because they contain electronic components in addition to mercury and other problematic substances. The collection is organized in Germany by the return logistics company Lightcycle and takes place, among other things, in more than 2100 municipal collection points ( recycling centers , hazardous waste vehicles , etc.) and 4000 collection points in retail and trade (drug stores, hardware stores, electrical workers, etc.). More than 400 bulk collection points are available for commercial quantities. Quantities of one ton or more (around 5000 old lamps) are picked up by the logistics company.

A system was introduced through the recycling code , which can mainly be found on products made of plastic , but also on other objects.

Recycling should primarily be understood as reuse / further use ( second hand ), even if this is not reflected in this form in the relevant legislation. The direct reuse of used objects and materials is the least energy and therefore the least CO 2 -consuming further use of resources.

In 1991, the Federal Government issued the Packaging Ordinance, according to which a one-way deposit should be levied for the purpose of avoiding waste from a certain market share of one-way packaging for beverages . This deposit has been levied on most non-returnable PET bottles and beverage cans since 2003 . The semi-automatic return of returnable bottles in supermarkets has now been adapted accordingly in many places by return machines that compress cans and PET non-returnable bottles and separate them from returnable bottles, or supplemented with corresponding separate return machines for one-way packaging. As a result, a recycling rate has been achieved for the beverage cans that almost corresponds to the ideal of the circular economy , while PET bottles are partly also incinerated or processed into polyester fibers.

Recycling centers are usually offered in a municipality in addition to the garbage cans and the bulky waste collection on the street. The catchment area per facility in Germany is usually 50,000 households and a delivery radius of 15 km. These collection points for the disposal of waste exist throughout Germany. There are over 20 recycling centers in Berlin alone, with Berliner Stadtreinigung (BSR) being the largest municipal waste disposal company in Germany.

Despite a plastic recycling rate of more than 50 percent in 2019, only about seven percent of packaging waste in Germany is actually reused because of the costs, because the purchase price of new plastic is cheaper than that of recycled plastic. Section 21 of the Packaging Act of 2017 obliges the systems to create incentives to promote the use of recyclates and renewable raw materials. However, there is no requirement that recycled plastic be used. In 2020 , the Central Packaging Register, which is responsible for compliance with the Packaging Act , warned of the inefficiency of the Act.


In Austria today, recycling is  anchored as a central objective in Section 1 of the Waste Management Act (AWG 2002). Collection and recycling systems are subject to approval, have to meet the requirements and objectives of the environmental laws and are subject to the supervision of the Environment Minister. They must "be set up and operated for at least one collection and treatment category", whether the operator recycles himself or sends it to a specialist company is left to the business management. In practice, recycling is based on organizations such as Altstoff Recycling Austria (ARA system in packaging recycling ) or the Baustoff-Recycling Verband  (BRV), which act as an interface between the polluters, the waste collectors (municipalities, commercial collectors, waste material collection center ) and the specialized recycling companies represents. This system developed on voluntary collaborations from the 1960s onwards.

Recycling is a well-developed industry in Austria, which has little of its own mass natural resources and has specialized in refinement for a long time. This includes, for example, the special steel industry, non-ferrous metal is also completely recycled in domestic companies, or the processing of wood waste into materials (chipboard) or fuels (pellets, press briquettes) and paper and cardboard, which are 100% recycled, is well developed. Overall, Austria is in the good European midfield for material recycling with a rate of 30% (2011).

In terms of the total recycling rate, however, Austria has been at the top of all European countries for many years. This is thanks in particular to organic recycling, i.e. the reprocessing of biodegradable materials. From the approximately 4 million tons of bio-waste (biogenic waste without wood and paper, about 8% of the total waste of 52 million tons), of which 700,000 tons of plant and food waste from households, about the same amount from allotment gardens and in agriculture and 750,000 tons from public waste Green space maintenance, an estimated 1.5 million tons are processed into compost privately and at least 1.3 million tons commercially (there are around 465  technical composting plants in Austria), a further 300,000 tons are processed in biogas plants (169 plants, capacity up to 1 million tons). Together with the traditional use of fertilizers in agriculture (manure, slurry and harvest waste), the recycling rate for bio-waste is very high, and with 33% in the area of ​​municipal waste it reaches a European peak value with an exceptional character (Netherlands as number 2: 24%, EU-27 -Average 14%).

For the separately collected waste materials from households (and similar facilities, around 1.4 million tonnes), the recycling rate of 85% is well above the overall rate, while the mixed municipal waste (approximately the same amount) is only 2.1% material and 19%. 6% is recycled biotechnologically, the rest is fed to thermal recycling. This shows that the areas of development are, on the one hand, even better waste separation in the household and, on the other hand, mainly waste separation in trade and industry.


Today, Switzerland achieves considerable recycling rates in both the capital and consumer goods sectors. With a rate of well over 90%, the country is considered to be the “world champion” when it comes to the return of aluminum cans. This is made possible by an optimized logistical organization and the polluter-pays volume fee through a tax burden on the garbage bags, the so-called bag fee .

In Switzerland too, the recycling of industrial waste products was enshrined in the constitution :

“The federal government and the cantons strive for a long-term balance between nature and its capacity for renewal, on the one hand, and human demands on the other. The federal government issues regulations on the protection of humans and their natural environment from harmful or annoying influences. "

The association PET-Recycling Schweiz is responsible for the nationwide separate collection of PET non-returnable beverage bottles. Vetrorecycling is Vetropack's division that takes on all glass recycling. The Igora cooperative is responsible for collecting aluminum . The beverage carton collection (Switzerland) is not widespread and is only supported in the retail trade by Aldi Suisse with appropriate collection points.

Recyclist EFZ is a Swiss apprenticeship in recycling. Recyclists process old materials into valuable materials and sort and store them properly. After processing them with machines and tools, they safely load the recyclable materials and prepare them for recycling. They dispose of by-products in an environmentally friendly manner. In doing so, they make an important contribution to conserving natural resources.


In 2000, 14.2% of urban solid waste in Italy was collected, treated and recycled. In 2012, 34.9% of the waste was recycled, 45.2% in 2014, 52.5% in 2016 and 55.5% in 2017.

See also

Recycling cycle , recycling-friendly construction , green IT , recycling code , recycling design award , secondary use of batteries
Raw material recovery
Waste lamps recycling , aluminum recycling , concrete recycling , recycling of digital data carriers , beverage carton recycling , glass recycling , copper recycling , paper recycling , urban mining , water treatment
Vehicle recycling , electronic waste (electrical / electronic recycling), plastics recycling , nuclear waste
Waste disposal
Re-use of objects
Waste Banks , waste disposal centers , flea markets , thrift shop , Secondhand goods , bring and holtág , refurbishing , remarketing , Umsonstladen , Freecycle , containers , Repair cafes , Social Department Stores

Web links

Commons : Recycling  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Recycling  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Legal text in the original. (PDF; 191 kB) Retrieved January 24, 2013 .
  2. ^ Gießener Zeitung: Recycling - (...) later reuse , accessed on July 4, 2013.
  3. Berliner Zeitung: “The first customers were employees” , quote: “Almost everything is reused: The company on Rothenbachstrasse operates furniture recycling”, accessed on July 4, 2013.
  4. Directive 2008/98 / EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of November 19, 2008 on waste and the repeal of certain directives.
  5. ^ H. Kindler, A. Nikles, Munich 1980.
  6. ^ Johannes Brandrup, Michaeli, Munich 1995.
  7. ^ VDI Society Development, Construction and Sales, Düsseldorf 1991.
  8. K. Grefermann, K. Halk, K.-D. Knörndel, Munich 1998.
  9. ^ Ecological manufacturing. TU Berlin CRC. 281.2003.
  10. Managing municipal solid waste - a review of achievements in 32 European countries . EEA Report No 2/2013, ISSN 1725-9177 , Figure 2.5 Municipal waste recycling rates in 32 European countries, 2001 and 2010 , p. 13 ( pdf , article, with links to the country reports , both EUROSTAT Data Explorer : Topics → Environment → Waste Statistics → → waste streams Municipal waste (env_wasmun) Comp. also Highest recycling rates in Austria and Germany - but UK and Ireland show fastest increase. European Environment Agency,, March 19, 2013.  

  11. Indices e estimated and s Eurostat estimate in EUROSTAT Data Explorer.
  12. EU: EU-27 with associated and previously collected data on the candidate countries.
    Denmark: new guidelines for recyclable material from companies as of 2010; Municipal waste management in Denmark , February 2013, p. 3 u. 5. (pdf,
    Croatia: No data for 2001.
    Austria: Values ​​for sewage sludge of around 7% were given for organic recycling, although they did not meet the criteria and were disposed of. Values ​​for Eurostat Data Explorer corrected according to Municipal waste management in Austria , February 2013, p. 3, footnote 1 and Figure 2.1 Recycling of MSW in Austria , p. 7 (pdf, Compare also general sources.
  13. Conclusion from a report on waste paper recycling 1939/40 (Second World War) by Harald Ditges.
  14. Der Spiegel, 2008, Precious Garbage: Brutal Struggle for Waste Paper .
  15. Recycling Management Act - KrWG .
  16. Nils Klawitter, DER SPIEGEL: Recycling Lie: The new flood of rubbish caused by Corona - DER SPIEGEL - Economy. Retrieved August 24, 2020 .
  17. "§ 1 Aims and Principles Paragraph 2 Item 3 and Paragraph 2a Item 4. Federal Act on Sustainable Waste Management ( Waste Management Act 2002 - AWG 2002) StF BGBl. I No. 102/2002 ( ris.bka ).
  18. § 29 ff AWG 2002; see also approval of collection and recycling systems ,
  19. § 29 (4) Furthermore ... AWG 2002.
  20. Federal Environment Agency, Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management - Department VI / 3: The inventory of waste management in Austria - Status report 2013 ( Memento of January 9, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) , various sections from 1.2 Summary of the inventory of waste management in Austria , p. 2 ff and special chapter (pdf,
  21. Status report 2012 , 2.6 Separately collected biogenic waste from households and similar facilities , p. 40 f.
  22. Status report 2012 , 2.8 Waste from the green area , p. 43 f.
  23. Status report 2012 , 2.7 Individual and community composting in home gardens , p. 42.
  24. Status report 2012 , 3.9. Aerobic biotechnical treatment plants (composting plants) , p. 135 f.
  25. Status report 2012 , 3.10. Anaerobic biotechnical treatment plants (biogas plants) , p. 137 f.
  26. European Environment Agency: Municipal waste management in Austria , February 2013, p. 3, and Figure 2.1 Recycling of MSW in Austria , p. 7 (pdf, Compare also Managing municipal solid waste - a review of achievements in 32 European countries . EEA Report No 2/2013, ISSN  1725-9177 , Figure 2.5 Municipal waste recycling rates in 32 European countries, 2001 and 2010 , p. 13 ( pdf ,
  27. Status report 2012 , 2.5 Separately collected waste materials from households and similar institutions , p. 39.
  28. Status report 2012 , 2.2 Mixed municipal waste from households and similar facilities , p. 30.
  29. Figures for paper recycling for Switzerland 2011
  30. Will the milk carton be returned - including the fee? 20 minutes from October 25, 2017.
  32. ^ Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale: Rapporto Rifiuti Urbani Edizione 2015. Accessed on May 9, 2016 .