Germany’s Deposit Return Machines Welcome You to Reduce Your Waste

Explore the deposit return scheme already in place in Germany and how this might be a useful addition to the UK’s fight against single-use plastic.


WALKING INTO ALDI and Lidl in Germany is a bit of different experience than in the UK. For a start the selection of muesli is significantly higher, and the abundance of fresh-looking bread tops that of even the largest of stores back home. They have a wide and differing variety of vegan products, clearly labelled as such, with everything from smoked tofu to soya schnitzel. One criticism though is that there is a distinct lack of peanut butter. Germans seem to have rejected the jars of creamy peanut pastes in favour of… more muesli? There is certainly no shortage on that front.

The biggest difference though has to be the imposing machines staring at you as you enter the door. I caught a glimpse of them out the corner of my eye the first time I popped in for some jam and juice. Assuming they were some kind of cleaning vessel indented only for staff, I didn’t pay them much attention. On the next trip to Aldi however, I saw several customers saddle on up to the machines and unload bagsful of used plastic and cans, confidently sliding them into the round orifice waiting to guide them to their intended fate.

Only then did I realise what the machines were: fancy-looking recycling bins. But of course that isn’t all they are. They also scan each item, allotting a certain value to each, to give the customer a voucher which can then be deducted from that day’s shop. What a fabulously simple and exciting idea, I thought.

A Resounding Success?

After conducting a little research on the scheme I found out that a law in Germany dates back to January 2003 when a levy of 25 cents was implemented on single-use plastic bottles. Initially introduced as an attempt to stop the downward trend of the multi-use bottle – which had long reined in Germany – the legislation aims to incentivise the use of multi-use bottles over their single-use counterpart.

By having a deposit price, or Pfand, on single-use bottles, the consumer is encouraged to buy bottles which can be returned to their point of purchase so that it can be reused in the future and they then have their deposit returned to them. But is this an effective system?

Statistics show that when the law was first introduced, around 64% of bottles sold were multi-use and by 2012 this figure had in fact gone down to 46%. However, Zero Waste Europe reports that 98.5% of single-use bottles are now returned and are good enough to guarantee that they will become a new bottle. This shows that when consumers have a monetary investment in recycling, they are much more likely to return it than have it thrown away to waste.

Along with the success of the system, there have been many critics whose voices should be heard. Supermarkets have been criticised for their self-fulfilling practices of only accepting bottles which they sold, making it confusing for consumers as to which bottle they can return at each store. It has also been claimed that this system favours the continuation of the trend towards single-use bottles by making it easier to recycle them at the supermarket. By far the best practice for the environment is the wide circulation of multi-use bottles, and this system does not do enough to enforce that while at the same time small vendors who primarily deal with multi-use bottles are at a disadvantage.

Perhaps this system is not nearly enough to combat the overall use of single-use plastic available on the supermarket shelves, but it seems to be a lot more than is happening in the UK and showing signs of a positive shift in the right direction.

The UK government recently rejected a proposal to introduce a levy on such bottles while the Scottish parliament – who are at advanced stages of implementing a deposit return system – have cross party support for the deposit return scheme as a means of meeting environmental targets.

Considering the success of the machines in the German supermarkets, and the market share that Aldi and Lidl continue to take in the UK, one wonders if they have any plans to back the introduction of the machines to their UK stores. In a response to Greenpeace on the matter Aldi said “we welcome the Government’s consultation on this matter and look forward to hearing more about the specific details of any proposed scheme” while Lidl told them “whilst the potential benefits that a deposit return system could deliver can not be ignored, it is vitally important to fully analyse and evaluate the application of such a system in the UK”.

Iceland and the Co-Op are the first UK retailers to back the change which aims to increase the overall recycling of packaging while significantly reducing litter and marine pollution.

The thrill of putting those bottles back into circulation and having your deposit returned to you could and should be extended to other countries and products. The most effective action has to be led by the government and big business who have the power to enforce change in their own behaviour and encourage their loyal customers to play a part too.

To encourage the British parliament to enforce change in the behaviour of the supermarkets and their packaging why not get involved with Surfers Against Sewage and sign their petition to introduce a deposit return scheme in the UK.

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