Cashing Bottles: The German Deposit Program

The ‘Public Policy and Governance Review Abroad’, or PPGR Abroad, is a new initiative for 2014. Undertaken in collaborative with exchange students from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, it will featured policy insights and analyses direct from Berlin and Paris.

Sydney Raeburn-Bell

One unique aspect of the grocery shopping experience in Germany makes it less mundane — and even slightly less expensive. The reverse bottle vending machines found in most supermarkets allow customers to simply feed empty glass or plastics bottles in, scanning the bar code to ensure the bottle qualifies for a refund, and then provide a receipt that can be redeemed for cash or used towards the cost of a future purchase.

The bottle deposit program in Germany is in many ways similar to Ontario’s ‘Bag It Back’ program. Both jurisdictions include a deposit in the price of the bottled product for which consumers can be fully refunded upon return, as a way of incentivizing recycling. As of 2010, the standard deposit for all single-use containers in Germany (cans, glass, and plastic bottles) is 0.25 ($0.36 CDN) — which, considering the relatively low cost of the bottles in the first place, is not exactly “chump change.”

The German program is regulated by the Einwegpfand, or “single use deposit.” The regulation stipulates that all supermarkets of a certain size that sell bottled products are required to have a Pfandrückgabestelle, a system to return bottles and provide deposit refunds. Bottles are designated “refundable” by a recycling symbol.

The deposit for refillable bottles, on the other hand, is not defined in German regulation. The usual rates are € 0.02 ($0.03 CDN) for wine bottles, € 0.08 ($0.12 CDN) for beer bottles, and € 0.15 ($0.22 CDN) for beer bottles with swing tops. However, operating deposit programs for non-regulated bottles is voluntary, and only some supermarkets provide the service. Ontario’s Bag it Back program, introduced province-wide in 2007, allows consumers to return all empty wine, beer, and spirit containers to The Beer Store for cash reimbursement. Deposits and refunds in the province range from 0.10 to 0.20 depending on the size of the bottle.

Yet while these programs share some similarities, they collect different materials. Germany focuses on collecting single-use containers, alcoholic or otherwise, while Ontario only collects bottles used for alcohol beverages. The Ontario program does collect certain plastics, while Germany’s program collects all types.

The success of the deposit program and the use of the reverse vending machines in Germany is evident in plastic recycling rates: in 2011, 98.5 per cent of refundable plastic bottles were recycled, compared to a much lower 25 to 31 per cent of plastic bottles without a deposit. In 2012, the Ontario Bag it Back program’s recycling rate for plastic bottles was a much lower 51 per cent.

In comparing the two programs, it is important to consider the various factors that play a role in the differences noted in the aforementioned return rates. Perhaps the explanation lies in the slightly larger monetary incentives found in Germany; or, maybe it is a result of the Pfandrückgabestelle machines themselves, which provide an immediate and readily-usable cash reimbursement. Unlike in Ontario, German consumers looking to lessen the financial burden of their grocery list do not have to make an extra trip to a secondary location in order to reap the monetary benefits of their recycling habits.

But while laudable, the German deposit program is by no means flawless. Given that some supermarkets voluntarily collect different bottles, there is often some confusion — particularly on the part of tourists or temporary residents — around which bottles should be returned to which location. It is possible that the consumer will be less likely to recycle, even for redemption, if it means they have to travel to multiple locations in order to get the most “bang for their recycling buck.”

Bottle collection and recycling is very much a part of urban life in Berlin; the program is embedded in the city’s culture. When you spend a lazy September day drinking a beer in Muaerpark, watching regular people taking an active approach to bottle collection, one cannot help but be impressed by the success of Germany’s Einwegpfand program in getting citizens to participate in keeping their parks and city clean.

Sydney Raeburn-Bell is a second year Master of Public Policy student at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, and is studying abroad at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Her policy interests lie in social policy, immigration, health, and gender equity. Sydney recently worked for the Ontario Public Service at the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and hopes to explore comparisons between the operation and financing of German and Canadian recycling programs. She is also interested in exploring comparisons between the best cheap flights so she can travel around Europe.

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