At a drinks retailer on the outskirts of Hamburg, a father holds up his three-year-old son to help him push an empty plastic water bottle into a hole on a large grey machine.
With a whirring sound, the apparatus pulls the bottle out of the child’s hand, juggles it on an assembly line to scan the barcode, then sucks the container even deeper into its belly and eventually shreds it with a satisfying crunch.
“Jackpot!” says the boy, beaming with glee as the machine spits back a 25-cent voucher.
Next in line, a man carrying a bin bag brimming with plastic bottles cannot quite feel a similar joy in recycling. “To be honest, I think it’s a slog,” says Şükrü Çal, 41. “Somehow the supermarkets have found a way of making us clear up after them.”
With its reputation as a recycling world champion, Germany is seen by many as the inspiration behind Britain’s new deposit return scheme (DRS) for bottles and cans, which was announced this week. However, 15 years after its introduction, views still vary on whether the scheme is a case of bottle half-empty or bottle half-full.
Introduced by Germany’s Social Democrat/Green coalition government in 2003, Germany’s Pfand (deposit) system has had a overwhelmingly positive effect on littering and introduced fun technology, but has also come with some unexpected social side-effects.
And in terms of advancing the introduction of genuinely green, reusable drinks containers, the effect has been negligible.
Pfand is an additional deposit you pay as part of the price of a bottle or can, and which gets reimbursed to you when you return the container to a vendor.
Almost all German supermarkets have sophisticated “reverse vending machines” that will weigh and scan your bottle to match against a list of acceptable shapes and sizes.
If your bottle is not on the retailer’s list, the machine spits the container back at you. If it matches, the bottle goes down a chute for either recycling or shredding, and the machine hands you a voucher with the added-up Pfand that you can then cash in at the till.
How it works: Germany’s Pfand system
Non-reusable, “one-way” bottles, mostly plastic, come with a higher deposit (usually 25 cents) than reusable, mostly glass bottles which come in at between 8 and 15 cents.
The original idea behind the price difference was twofold: on the one hand, it increased the incentive for people to return environmentally-harmful plastics that would otherwise litter the landscape. On the other hand, the higher price was designed to make non-reusable beverage containers less attractive in the long run.
In regards to the former, the DRS has been a resounding success. Only 1%-3% of non-reusable bottles are now not returned in Germany; recycling rates for cans are around 99%. This is in part due to an entire informal sub-economy that has grown around the recycling process.
In larger German cities, hundreds of Pfandsammler or “deposit collectors” – many of them pensioners or people in precarious living conditions – roam the streets with trolleys and hand torches, searching bins for plastic bottles they can take to the next supermarket. Some cities have mounted bins with special shelves to facilitate their search.
“Setting up the infrastructure for the deposit return scheme took a lot of time and effort,” says Detlef Gross of the soft drinks trade association. “But for us in the German drinks industry, it works.”
If the original aim of the DRS scheme was to increase the use of more environmentally-friendly drinks containers, however, its results are disappointing. Since the introduction of the scheme, the overall percentage of reusable bottles has actually sunk from about 80% to below 50%.
People working in the drinks industry say the introduction of the DRS scheme has actually forced German discount giants such as Aldi and Lidl to switch exclusively to non-reusable bottles made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), to streamline the return process. PET plastic bottles are also attractive for customers: they are light to carry in bulk and, unlike glass bottles, they do not have to be returned at the same retailer where they were purchased.
But while many PET plastic bottles in Germany are marked with a little recycling arrow, only about a quarter of those returned find a second life as a bottle. Others are recycled as plastic films and fibres, shipped abroad – or simply burned.
A new German law, coming into force in 2019, is designed to correct the impression that every bottle thrown into a reverse vending machine is also a boon for the environment: shops will be forced to distinguish between reusable and non-reusable bottles on their shelves.
“Customers will thus be absolutely clear what kind of drinks packaging they are buying,” promised Stefan Hertel of the German Retail Federation.
Another problem, in the view of environmental pressure groups, is that the Pfand system has not created much of an incentive for manufacturers to go green. Drinks producers, in fact, make a sizable profit from the 1-3% of unreturned non-recyclable bottles, for which retailers have charged their customers extra but never had to pay back a deposit.
Since the introduction of the DRS scheme, drinks producers are estimated to have made more than €3bn (£2.6bn) from bottles that were thrown away rather than returned into the system, an unexpected profit opportunity awarded with the neologism Pfandschlupf (deposit slip).
“If Britain copies the German system, I expect it will prove a great success in the fight against littering,” says Benjamin Bongardt of Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union.
“But it will entrench a system that isn’t very environmentally friendly in the first place. A tax on drinks packaging would have proved a lot more effective.”