Rethinking Recycling in Germany
Did you know that Germany is the number one country in terms of recycling?
The figures are impressive, 85% of glass containers were recycled in 2015. This is partly due to the Pfand system, which was introduced in 2003. The system is simple to understand. When you buy certain bottles (plastic or glass) and cans, you pay a deposit for the packaging. When the bottle is empty, you can bring it back and you get your money back. The bottles are either washed and reused or recycled into new containers.
How does it work?
This system is very common in Germany, you just need to go to beverage stores, supermarkets, kiosks or night shops with your empty bottles. To return them, they cannot be crushed or without a label. An employee may be in charge of collecting the bottles and returning the deposit. Or, more and more frequently, a reverse vending machine, called Pfandautomat, is present in the stores. When the bottle is put into the machine it is scanned (to determine the brand, size and producer) and weighed. The price is displayed on the machine's screen. When the person has put all the bottles he/she receives a coupon with the money. Either the person uses it to buy something in the store or asks for cash. The bottle doesn't need to be cleaned out perfectly, it will be done later in the process. The bottle disappears and goes into the room behind the machine. A store employee then sorts the bottles and gives them to a recycling company. The next step relies on the bottle material.
There are two types of systems:
Mehrweg-system: the bottles can be reused after being washed.
Single-use bottles and cans: these bottles and cans are only used once and are recycled upon return. Ecologically they have a bigger impact than multi-use bottles so there is a bigger need for recycling, 25 cents.
Recyclable Bottles (plastic and glass) : they can be reused up to 50 times before they get
recycled. There are strict health regulations for the refilling process. composed of : non-alcoholic bottles, glass bottles, beer bottles, soft drink bottles and yogurt glasses.
glass beer bottles 0.33 L or 0.5 L for 8 cents,
plastic water bottles of any size for 15 cents.
Between 97 and 99% of non-reusable bottles are returned, and recycling rates for cans are
around 99%. This system encourages people to pay attention to recycling and helps reduce
energy costs and waste. According to the Federal Office of the Environment of Germany,
reusing a glass bottle 20 times reduces energy consumption by 76.91%.
What are the problems of the Pfand system?
The problem with single-use plastic bottles is that only a quarter are used to make new
containers, the rest are scrambled and sold to make polyester, usually in Asia.
Not all containers can be returned by the Pfand method, these are generally: wine bottles, spirit bottles, smaller cans, bottles from other countries, milk and juice containers. This can be an issue as Germans consume an average of 100 liters of beer per year per person. Therefore, since Germans consume less wine, fruit juice and spirit than beer or water, the Pfand system is unbalanced as the cost of establishing the system would be higher than the environmental benefit.
In addition, only containers between 100mL and 3L are accepted.
Fun fact: this system has developed a system of unofficial deposit collectors, people who are looking for bottles and cans to claim the deposit. What a wonderful job, earning money while helping recycling!
Would you like this system to come to your country?