You might have heard about Germany’s unique approach to recycling, colloquially known as the Pfandsystem.

But what is it? How exactly does it work? And is it proving effective?

 

What is the German Pfand System?

 

Introduced in 2003, the “Pfand” recycling system encourages drinks companies to use refillable bottles, and encourages consumers to return their bottles for recycling.

The objective was to create a responsible policy for the sale and return of disposable packaging. The process of washing and sterilising existing bottles is overwhelmingly more environmentally friendly than the production of new, single-use bottles.

Washing and re-using bottles not only reduces waste, but also cuts the CO2 emissions created by manufacturing bottles.

How does the German Pfand system work?

 

Essentially, it works as a cycle:

Manufacturers sell their bottled product to retailers. The retailers pay a deposit to the manufacturer. This deposit – or Pfand – is passed on to the customer, and then refunded when they return their bottles.

This way, everyone is incentivised to keep the refillable bottles in circulation, and out of the landfill.

MULTI USE BOTTLES

 

Glass beer bottles of 0.33 or 0.5 litre of have a deposit of €0.08

Glass water bottles of 0.75 or 1 litre have a deposit of €0.15

Plastic multi-use bottles in all shapes have a deposit of €0.15

Standard beer crates have a deposit of €3.10 (if you return them with all 20 empties)

SINGLE USE BOTTLES & CANS

 

Single-use bottles, or Einwegflaschen, carry a deposit of €0.25.

Common examples are your cheap 6-pack of 1.5 litre mineral water bottles from your local supermarket. In many discount supermarkets, Coca Cola and Pepsi sell their products in 0.5 litre or 1.25 litre bottles which are single-use.

Drinks cans also carry a €0.25 deposit and are treated in the same way i.e. as single-use products.

So far, so good, right? The Pfand laws are simple, and obviously the right thing to do.

Well, unfortunately it’s not quite so straightforward…

 

Flaws in the Pfand system

 

There are some weird inconsistencies in the German Pfand system.

For one, not all drinks are created equal:

  • Juice, milk, wine and spirits sold in glass or plastic bottles are not subjected to legally enforceable deposits.
  • Paper-based drinks cartons are excluded from the law too, even though they’re usually coated in plastic. There’s no enforceable deposit on glass or plastic bottled food products (like sauces and condiments) either.

There’s also an issue with declining interest in the system from both consumers and manufacturers.

According to a recent Spiegel article, at the time the law came into force, 64% of all bottles purchased were refilled. At the end of 2012, this had reduced to 46%, with the trend heading downwards.

By early 2015, Coca Cola announced that it would over time phase out multi-use bottles in favour of one-time use, citing the high logistics costs of collecting the multi-use bottles and holding free storage space for them.

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