Germany’s pioneering bottle deposit scheme has lessons for the EU

“Germany has the most successful deposit return program in the world, and it’s also the largest,” said Clarissa Morawski, CEO of the recycling non-profit platform Reloop. [frantic00 / Shutterstock]

Ten EU member states are planning to switch to deposit schemes for beverage container recycling in order to meet new Green Deal requirements. Germany has 20 years of experiencing in operating the world’s largest such scheme.

In 2002, Germany became the first big European country to adopt a bottle deposit scheme. The Einwegpfand, taking inspiration from schemes in Scandinavia, has been requiring people to bring their plastic and glass bottles to stores themselves to get their deposit back ever since. As other European countries think about emulating the scheme, they are curious to hear what has gone right, and what has been a challenge.

All stores in Germany that sell beverages are required to take them back and return the deposit (pfand) to the customer – whether or not that person bought that beverage from them. The deposit for plastic bottles is quite high – €0.25 – in recognition of the higher environmental impact. The deposit for glass bottles is far lower – between €0.08 and €0.15 – because they can be reused. The idea is both to give people more of a reward for returning plastic, and to encourage them to buy products in glass bottles because it’s cheaper up front.

Drink container recycling in the European Union varies by country. In Belgium, plastic containers are collected from homes along with other plastic waste, but glass bottles need to be brought to bottle banks. There is no pfand, and therefore no incentive for people to bring their glass bottles to the proper waste points. Despite this, Belgium still has a quite high rate of glass recycling.

“Germany has the most successful deposit return program in the world, and it’s also the largest,” Clarissa Morawski, CEO of the recycling non-profit platform Reloop, said at a recent online event, supported by the German mineral water sector.

“So you get the benefit of scale, and it’s also one of the most sophisticated in terms of technology. You have every single retail shop taking bottles back, the vast majority through machines. They’re clean, they’re sexy. They take refillables and non-refillables. This is absolutely unique, so Germany stands as a model for the rest of the world. Politicians and system designers should be coming to Germany to see how it’s done.”

The lessons to be drawn from two decades of the German pfand system are especially important right now, because over the next few years at least ten EU member states are planning to transition to a deposit system, according to Morawski. The reason this is happening now is partly due to new obligations which will come in as a result of the European Green Deal.

“We believe that it’s critical that the deposit system includes glass, plastic and metal. But we’re finding in many jurisdictions glass isn’t going to be introduced in the program,” Morawski said.

German Green MEP Jutta Paulus, also speaking at the event, said other EU countries should be following the German model.

“What we can transfer to other member states is the message that deposit schemes work,” she said. “If you have a deposit scheme in place, your recycling quota will go up naturally because people are not willing to waste money. And even if they are, it’s not something I support but a lot of people who are in need of money actually go to the bins and look for bottles which they collect and bring back to the shops.”

But for these systems to work, you need buy-in from the producers. And in Germany that has to a certain degree varied by product.

Dr. Karl Tack, president of the German Mineral Water Association (VDM) said at the event that sector’s refill and circular system achieves a rate of almost 100%. “The high collection rate shows that the systems are used responsibly by consumers. Packaging systems operated by German mineral water producers do not contribute to littering the oceans or the environment.”

France's newly implemented deposit-return scheme receives strong criticism

A deposit-return scheme not yet launched in France is already being strongly criticised by local authorities and recyclers, who consider it ineffective and regret not having been sufficiently consulted about it. EURACTIV’s partner le Journal de l’Environnement reports.

Tack said that the natural mineral water sector has the lowest CO2 footprint within the food and drink industry. Together with the Cooperative of the German Mineral Water Companies (GDB), VDM has set a goal of making the entire process chain climate neutral by 2030.

Many producers would like to be able to say that, but so much depends on what collection systems are in place in their countries. The key question for the coming years will be what type of system countries will choose. What’s become clear from the German example is that it can’t just be imposed by the government – it needs to involve a cooperation between governments, producers, retailers and critically, consumers.

“If we think about reuse systems, they are embedded in a rather complex system with producers, retail and consumers cooperating in an invisble way in order to guarantee a continuous flow of bottles,” said Tobias Bielenstein, director of public affairs, sustainability and communications at GDB. “This is very important and we tend to overlook this because in Germany we are pretty much used to it. But when I come to Brussels I realise we need to explain this. It’s really an interplay.”

Aside from whether to have collection or deposit schemes, countries are going to need to decide whether and how they will encourage reuse. One idea has been to incentivise the use of refillable glass bottles instead of plastic.

“A multi-use bottle system is of course easier to implement if not every single company has their own bottle form,” said Paulus. “When I was a child we still had mineral water in glass bottles, which can be refilled much more than plastic bottles. There was a classic design. All mineral waters came in the same bottle shape, so it was very easy to repurpose a filling bottle even if it didn’t go back to the filling station because you could just take off the paper wrapping and refill it with your own water.”

However glass may not always be the best solution. “Standardised bottles are absolutely the way to go,” said Morawski. “In Canada we have a standard beer bottle that’s been used for 70 years. It’s extremely efficient from a logistics perspective because any of the brands can take them back, wash them and reuse them.”

“Absolutely a glass bottle that’s reused many many times and delivered through efficient logistics is a great way to go, but it’s important to note though that glass production per litre for single use is quite heavy in terms of emissions.” Plastic is less emissions intensive to produce, and so refillable plastic may sometimes be the better solution.

“In Germany we have glass and PET [plastic] reeuse and circular systems, it has to be a smart mix,” said Bielenstein. “We need the right packaging for the right consumer situation. This can only be realised if we think about it.”

“The Green Deal is asking us to think about innovation in packaging. We tend to say our systems are pretty good, but I can tell you here within GDB we’re having really big discussions with our partners in the supply chain on how to become better.”

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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