The initially controversial law has certainly resulted in fewer empty tin cans and bottles cluttering the streets and parks – and inadvertently provided informal income for jobless, homeless and even some pensioners who collect bottles.
But figures show that while more than 80 percent of beer now sold is packaged in multiple-use containers, the total amount of multiple-use beverage packaging has dropped to 50 percent – lower than a decade ago, when it was 60 percent.
That is because many people buy their drinks at discount supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl, which only sell water and soft drinks in single-use containers, environmental expert Maria Elander told the The Local. Elander is director of recycling business for the non-profit German Environment Help, an environmental watchdog group.
Elander said the use of multiple-use containers for beer jumped from 68 percent before the law was passed in 2002 to 82 percent last year. In 2011 just 30 percent of water and 22 percent of soft drinks were packaged in reusable containers.
“Discounters don’t give their customers a choice and only offer them single-use,” beverages, Gerhard Kotschik from the Federal Environment Office agreed.
On the positive front, he said containers which carry deposits are more often returned these days. “They don’t land in the garbage or on the street,” he said, adding that it was best to purchase drinks in bottles that can be reused.
Elander said discounters preferred to sell single-use containers because they can crush the packaging and sell the raw materials at a profit, getting as much as €600 per tonne.
They have to store multiple-use containers, which take up significant space. And the discounters have a single assortment for their nationwide stores, whereas regular shops concentrate more on regional products, and find it easier to return multiple-use containers to local suppliers, she said.
The law required a deposit of between 25 and 50 cents, depending on the drink size, for single-use containers. When it was being considered in 2002, it attracted harsh criticism, with the then Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader, now Chancellor Angela Merkel commenting that the idiocy of the idea “knows no bounds.”
It was however a CDU Environment Minister, Klaus Töpfer, who pushed through a package law requiring a deposit on beverage containers after the share of drinks sold in recyclable containers dropped below 72 percent for several years in a row.
Big retail chains like Aldi Rewe and Tengelmann went out on all fronts against the deposit law and even started a legal battle against the measure that reached Germany’s highest court – but where they lost.
The law’s implementation was hardly smooth. At first consumers could only return their bottles at the place of purchase, which was difficult for commuters who bought a drink on the way to work, for example. Eventually that changed and stores were required to take back recyclables even if they had not sold them.
Today cans are rarer than before, there are machines in many stores for consumers to return containers with deposits on their own and the deposit system has become accepted, Elander said.
Once retailers were required to accept all deposit containers – and not just the ones they had sold – there was “a change in the business,” she said.
Despite the mixed results, the Green party’s Jürgen Trittin, a former environment minister and considered the “father” of the law, feels history showed that he was right to push through the legislation.