By Philine Partsch

I remember the excitement as a little girl of carefully pushing one bottle after another into the big machines in the supermarkets. After the recognition of the barcode and an accepting beep sound, the machine would swallow the bottles. It seemed like a personal success when the apparatus pulled the bottle out of my tiny hand and a whirling sound declared its correct disposal. As a sign of appreciation, the machine then proceeds to spit out a voucher, mostly spend on sweets or crunched into the charity box for Unicef at the cashier. 

 The German ‘Pfandsystem’ (deposit system) is not only handled as a prestige example for many other countries, but has also helped clean up German streets. However, is its environmental purpose rather a fairytale?

 In 2003, the ‘SPD’ (Social Democrats) and the ‘Grüne’ (Green party) initiated the sophisticated, but also highly confusing bottle recycling system. Whenever a bottle is bought, an additional 5-25 cents are included in the drink price. When that bottle is then returned, vouchers are distributed. Depending on the material, shape and size, the bottles are then directly shredded or recycled.  That’s the point where it gets messy. Your soda drink can come in a ‘Einwegflasche’ (single-use bottle) or a Mehrwegflasche (reusable bottle). Retailers and beverage stores have to accept all ‘Einwegflaschen,’ if their stores exceed 200 m², otherwise they can restrict themselves to only bottles bought at their institution. ‘Mehrwegflaschen’ are not part of that deposit system (Deutsche Pfandsystem GbmH- DPG). Retailers may therefore choose to take part in recycling‘Mehrwegflaschen.’ Reusable bottles have a higher monetary return, meant to make them more attractive for consumers. However, the introduction of the ‘Pfandsystem’ for all bottles confused customers, many of them not willing to take the extra step and check for the different little signs on the back of their beverage. A little blue angel or a ‘Mehrweg’ sign for reusable cans and bottles, green arrows for plastic products which can be recycled but are mostly burned, a blue bottle with a return arrow for single-use containers marked by the official DPG or no sign at all. A new lawby the German government is supposed to ameliorate that confusion by 2019 through clear distinctions between single-use/ and multi-use bottles. However, that clear distinction still relies on a responsible environmentally conscious consumer and not the retailers or producers.

The whole system had two original purposes, clean German streets from its litter and convince the nation to switch to more environmentally friendly reusable bottles. Currently, numbers tell a two-fold story. While over 95% of single use bottles and 99% of cans are returned, the sale of reusable bottles dwindled drastically. It had become more lucrative for big retailers to only sell single-use packaging through a streamlined process, failing the second goal of the German government. The most prominent case, was the announcement of Coca Cola, which stopped using multi-use bottles in order to save recollection costs. 

 A positive side effect of the system has been the emergence of an underground economy built on so called ‘Pfandsammler’ (deposit collectors). Thousands of poor or/and homeless citizens gather the bottles and cans in order to redeem them for vouchers afterwards. Drunk students placing their old beer bottles under the bin to facilitate their search has today become a common sight in Berlin. 

Is that system however an actual success and what happens to the bottles after the machines produced their accepting beep sound and swallowed it? In theory, the multi-use bottles of glass can be refilled 50 times, the multi-use PET bottles 25 times. However only a quarter of single-use bottles are recycled to new bottles, the rest is either sent off to countries such as China in the form of fibers to be used in clothes or simply burned.  While this system appears environmentally friendly it slimmed the usage of multi-use bottles from 70% to 50% and led to the closing of refill stations. The therefore further transportation implies a growing carbon footprint. In addition, many retailers switched to single-use bottles in order to save costs, actually pocketing money from each bottle which is not returned, as they keep the additionally paid deposit. 

Many environmental activists are not convinced by the system in place and accuse the government to have created a lucrative money making scheme for big retailers. If the new laws that will come into effect on 01.01.2019 can close the loopholes and lead to better recycling processes is to be seen. 

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