Trash in the pandemic: is Berlin generating more waste?

With people working at home and e-commerce booming, one would assume a mountain of rubbish is being created in Berlin. But that assumption is only half true.

Recycling bins in 2018 - already overflowing before the pandemic.
Recycling bins in 2018 - already overflowing before the pandemic.Photo: imago

Berlin-No holidays, no restaurant visits. In the pandemic, Berliners have been ordering home-delivered meals, working from their living rooms and shopping online. Such changes in our lifestyles triggered by corona led to Lieferando delivering 112 million orders in Germany, 34 million more than in 2019. The nation consumed exactly 14,584 more tonnes of frozen pizza than in 2019 - all of which were packaged in plastic and cardboard. Online retailer Zalando alone used 9,000 tonnes more packaging material in the first year of corona than in the year before. But where has it all gone?

"When more people are at home, more waste is generated," says Thomas Klöckner of the Berlin Sanitation Department (BSR). That sounds like a mountain of trash and record levels of waste. In fact, the black bins for non-recycable household waste were only slightly fuller last year than in the year before the pandemic. Only two per cent more of that category of waste was collected, says Klöckner. In absolute terms, those two per cent amount to 16,000t and an increase of 4kg per Berliner. But that's not a significant increase, so has the pandemic had a negligible impact on the volume of trash in Berlin?

16,500t more organic waste

The stats on organic waste or Biomüll, on the other hand, suggest that Berliners have been exemplary about sorting their waste, chucking their pizza crusts and potato peelings into the brown bins. Here, the volume of waste increased by 16 per cent last year. In total, about 16,500t more organic waste was collected than in 2019. At first glance, this does look like a consequence of corona, but according to BSR, it can't be clearly linked to the pandemic. Instead, the jump in organic waste is due to the "successful introduction of the mandatory Biomüll bin". This isn't entirely convincing, though, since mandatory organic waste bins were in fact introduced in April 2019 in order to reduce the very high proportion of organic waste that had been landing in the black household waste bins. BSR's Klöckner admits: "Slight corona effects cannot be ruled out."

But what happened to all the extra packaging? It probably didn't end up in the black bin either, but in the blue one for paper or in the yellow one for other recyclables. These bins aren't BSR's responsiblity so we asked recycling firm Alba and found out that collection of recyclables from milk cartons to yoghurt pots to polystyrene boxes from delivery services has only increased slightly. A spokeswoman said volume increased by a mere 1.2 per cent last year.

Berlin's street sweepers have less to do

This leaves e-commerce as the alleged driver of private waste growth. Packages that deliverypeople drop off are mostly made of paper and cardboard, which belong in the blue recycling bin. But according to Alba, the volume of this kind of waste shrank by 7.4 per cent last year. The company's explanation is that while online retail is booming, fewer printed newspapers and magazines are being read and mail-order catalogues have virtually died out. In terms of weight, the growth in cardboard packaging has not made up for the slump in printed products. A stack of newspapers is much heavier than a stack of cardboard boxes of the same size. The BSR subsidiary Berlin Recycling, which picks up paper and cardboard, also says that while the weight of waste in this area has remained almost unchanged, the volume has increased due to the growth of e-commerce.

Corona also left its mark beyond residential bins. Berlin's street sweepers had less to do. The lockdowns and the lack of tourists led the amount of street sweepings to drop by around six per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year. Three percent less garbage was found in Berlin's public wastebaskets. According to BSR, during the first lockdown, the amount of litter fell by as much as 17 per cent compared to the previous year.

There was, however, one exception. On the second weekend in May 2020, days after the end of the first lockdown, temperatures rose by 10°C over a few days. Berliners flocked outside and BSR noticed "a massive increase in bulky disposable packaging, pizza boxes and polystyrene boxes" - and overflowing wastebaskets. Sometimes, the trash was just left on the ground. In other words, an almost normal weekend.

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