BioCycle October 2010, Vol. 51, No. 10, p. 37
Facing the prospect of a nuclear power plant 30 years ago, Freiburg took its sustainable future into its own hands.
FREIBURG, Germany, labels itself as a “Green City” and has won several awards for its innovative environmental programs. The city got its start on the path to going greener about 30 years ago when a proposal surfaced to build a nuclear power plant in the area. This mobilized diverse groups of people, from students at the local university and colleges to the general public. Rather than simply protest what they didn’t want, the citizens also developed alternative programs for energy, solid waste, water and other environmental initiatives.
Located in southwestern Germany in the Rhine valley in the state of Baden-Württemberg and nestled along the side of the Black Forest, Freiburg is a city of about 60 square miles and 210,000 residents (including about 25,000 students who attend the University of Freiburg). It is also a destination for many tourists, with nearly one million overnight stays last year from visitors, lots of history, charming buildings, small canals running alongside streets and larger canals meandering throughout parts of town. Not only are these waterways an attractive source of enjoyment, they are also used to generate electricity via several hydroelectric plants.
For many people who live here, perhaps the most notable environmental initiative is the solid waste program. Each household has containers to separate materials into various categories. There are carts for paper, biomaterial (food, yard trimmings, tissues, etc.) and nonrecyclables, and a yellow sack for packaging. Drop-off sites exist for glass containers, batteries and household hazardous waste. Bulky materials are collected on an as-needed basis, with the resident contacting the city; three separate collections are provided – metal, appliances and electrical and electronic products; wood-based products, such as wardrobes and dressers; and the remainder, such as rugs, stuffed chairs, sofas, etc. For bulky materials, the first two categories are recycled, while the third goes to the energy recovery plant.
Since recycled paper prices are good locally, it is currently not being exported. The biomaterial goes to a privately owned and operated anaerobic digester, where biogas and humus are generated. Biogas is used to generate electricity (two percent of the consumption of Freiburg). The city receives some revenue from this process, which partially offsets the initial cost of 120 euros per metric ton for the collection and tipping. Freiburg also recovers methane gas for energy production from its old landfill, but this process is expected to end in less than a decade since the landfill has not received any municipal waste for a number of years.
Packaging goes to a privately owned materials recovery facility (MRF), where it is sorted and recovered. That system – along with the glass from 300 drop-off centers within the city – is part of Germany’s Green Dot program for packaging and is financed by fees consumers pay on that packaging as part of the price for their products. This cost is invisible to the consumer. There is also a deposit on many types of beverage containers, which can be substantial. For example, a 29-cent liter-and-a-half bottle of soda will command a 25-cent deposit, encouraging citizens to not only pick up their own bottle but to collect and return those they see discarded.
Batteries are collected both by a privately run system and by the city through its household hazardous materials program. The private system has drop-off boxes at supermarkets, and the city program turns the batteries they collect over to the private company. Under German law, the city is required to run a hazardous materials collection program and currently has three drop-off locations, which are open all year.
The nonrecyclables material goes to an energy recovery plant that the local county (Landkreis) and several neighboring counties built a few years ago. The plant produces enough energy for 25,000 homes. A number of years ago, the national government of Germany developed a law and regulations to prohibit the landfilling of most materials, and energy recovery is an increasingly important part of the system.
The city’s program fee structure provides incentives for both reducing the quantities of materials generated and for handling biomaterials at home. Financing is in three parts. First is the fee included in the price of products for packaging and for batteries. For city refuse services, there is a flat fee based on the number of people in the household (sharing between households is allowed) and a fee for collection, based on both the size of the container and the frequency of that collection. Biomaterial is collected weekly for hygienic purposes, while for nonorganics, the household has the choice of weekly or biweekly collection. The savings for biweekly collection is substantial. For example, for a 140 liter container (about 37 gallons, the third largest), weekly collection costs just under the equivalent of $370 a year, while the biweekly collection is half that. The fixed fee ranges from $125 for a one-person household to $214 for a family of five or more people. When all the costs are added up (including the Green Dot packaging costs), the Freiburg program is considerably more expensive than a program back home in Madison, Wisconsin, which has about the same number of people as Freiburg but encompasses an area 40 percent larger.
However, environmental protection is important in Freiburg, and the results are noticeable. Paper collection in 2009 was 209 pounds per person, 12 percent higher than in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Biomaterials had a collection amount of a 143 pounds per person, 55 percent higher than in the state overall. For glass, 64 pounds were collected for each person in 2009, again higher than the rest of the state. And the amount of nonrecyclable material dropped to 273 pounds per person, compared to a state average of 322 pounds. The overall recycling rate is calculated at 69 percent, a slight improvement over 2008.
While the city is proud of its achievements, it recognizes that the existing program can be improved. One major challenge is in larger apartment buildings, both in terms of educating residents about how the system works and to engender proper participation. In single-family homes and smaller apartment buildings, the residents are often longtime citizens of Freiburg, and a certain amount of neighborhood societal pressure to separate materials correctly exists.
In larger buildings, however, the residents can often be from many different countries, perhaps have other concerns that are more pressing than how to properly sort their materials, and there is less societal pressure to follow the regulations. The city has placards with instructions posted in seven languages but also recognizes that more outreach and education are necessary.
As impressive as the solid waste programs are, it is in the energy field that Freiburg really shines. Led by solar installations, Freiburg’s initiatives cover renewable energy as well as energy conservation in buildings and transportation.
As noted earlier, the roots of renewable energy in Freiburg were planted with the proposal more than 30 years ago to build a nuclear power plant. Following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the city council moved to a policy of using only nonnuclear power. The local utility – owned jointly by Freiburg and other municipalities – offers two major plans for electricity to local residents and businesses. In the standard plan, about half the power comes from renewable resources with the remainder coming from combined heat and power systems. The second plan uses only renewable resources. These include solar heat, photovoltaic, wind turbines (visible in the Black Forest from downtown Freiburg), hydroelectric power – including a half-dozen systems along the canals – and the energy recovery systems described previously. The utility’s web page lists 80 alternative projects either in demonstration mode or fully operational.
Energy conservation is also key. Recycling derives value in part due to the energy it saves. For buildings, Freiburg has adopted an energy consumption standard in which new buildings are required to be constructed to use only 60 percent of the energy as the national code provides. Starting in 2011, this figure drops to 40 percent. Remodeled buildings have been modified to use 10 percent less of the energy used prior to remodeling. Some buildings use so little energy themselves that their solar systems result in them being net producers.
In the transportation field, Freiburg has an extensive bus and streetcar system and actively promotes biking. Some areas of the city are auto-free zones. Streets and sidewalks often have designated areas for bikes to be ridden; bike paths encompass more than 300 miles. Even the small details matter to Freiburg. The streetcars generate electricity when they brake, the buses and streetcars are washed with rain collected from the roofs of buildings and motorists are encouraged to turn off their engines when stopped for traffic lights or similar situations.
More information (in English) on Freiburg’s materials management program can be found at Freiburg Green City: www.fwtm.freiburg.de/servlet/PB/menu/1144339_l2/index.html. See also http://www.fwtm.freiburg.de/servlet/PB/show/1199617_l2/GreenCity_E.pdf for a comprehensive report of the city’s sustainability efforts.
John Reindl retired several years ago as recycling manager of Dane County, Wisconsin, after working with its mandatory recycling program. He recently spent a month in Freiburg attending the Goethe Institute.
October 26, 2010 | General
Green City Lives Up To Its Name (Germany)
BioCycle October 2010, Vol. 51, No. 10, p. 37