Berlinomics: Power from Trash

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I’m currently living in Berlin, and, as an American, I always marvel at the complexity of German trash handling. In homes and around the city, there are separate containers for plastic packaging, glass, paper, organic waste, and then Restmüll, or everything else. For example, this is a trash container with four separate bins in the Berlin central train station:

From left to right: Waste (everything else); Paper; Packaging; Glass.

And this is the group of dumpsters for my apartment building:

From left to right: Plastic packaging (yellow); Paper (blue); Clear glass (1st dark green); Colored glass (2nd dark green); Donated usable items (orange); Everything else (large black); Organic waste (small black).

The BSR is the city of Berlin’s trash collection service. They have a very visible presence and use a lot of catchy slogans on trash cans and billboards to encourage people to recycle and make people aware of the benefits. They remind Berliners that ‘trash isn’t necessarily waste’ (or Abfall ist nicht gleich Müll, if you will). The trash can below advertises that the BSR uses energy from its incineration plants to provide electricity for 100,000 households per year:

“Power basket: From waste, we produce electricity for 100,000 households”

The BSR waste-to-energy plant in Ruhleben, Berlin. 

With its handling of organic waste, the BSR is even more ambitious. They have long collected organic waste (Biomüll, in German) and composted it to use as fertilizer for gardens and agriculture.

“Food scraps belong in the compost box.”

This ad from the BSR uses a painting by Nicolaes Maes from the Berlin painting gallery to remind people to separate out their organic waste from the kitchen.

The BSR is getting even more ambitious with a new project to begin converting the methane produced from composting the organic waste into biogas. The new plan, starting in 2013, will produce enough biogas to fuel as many as 150 of the company’s trash trucks, about half their fleet. They calculate that this will save 2.5 million liters of diesel fuel annually and allow 580,000 tons of waste to be collected and transported carbon-neutrally each year.

The remaining waste from the biogas production will be used as fertilizer. The BSR estimates that this biogas conversion project will save 5,000 tons of CO2 every year, on top of the BSR’s already impressive emissions reductions. In 2007, they set the goal of reducing their carbon dioxide emissions 121,000 tons by 2010. In fact, they exceeded that goal by 9,000 tons for a total reduction of 130,000 tons in only 3 years. In 2011, they set out a new plan to further reduce emissions by 107,500 tons by 2015.

The BSR is an inspiring environmental success story and shows that waste is an area where there is room for huge efficiency improvements. Waste management need not be a cost-sink, but could instead pay for itself, or even provide net gains in energy production and environmental benefits.

This BSR trash truck has a play on words with the Italian phrase “Mille Grazie” (many thanks), but with “Mülle,” German for “trash.

Marian Swain follows sustainability, urban planning, and energy issues in the US and Germany. You can read more on her blog, Transatlantic Energy.

Top image via La Citta Vita