Solid Waste & Recycling

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Billions of Bottles & Baby in Berlin

As the snow banks swelled past six feet around my Peterborough home last March, I was tending to the newest addition to our family; baby Catherine. "Cate" arrived seven weeks early and spent her first...


As the snow banks swelled past six feet around my Peterborough home last March, I was tending to the newest addition to our family; baby Catherine. “Cate” arrived seven weeks early and spent her first month growing in the Peterborough neo-natal care unit. So when I received an invitation travel to Europe to join an international group of colleagues specializing in beverage container reuse and recycling, naturally, I had to decline. Traveling eling to Europe with an eight pound premature baby seemed inaccessible. But on reflection, the opportunity to meet like-minded professionals and learn about the new German system — the largest deposit return and refillables program of its kind in the world — was both unique, and too good to pass up. So, within a week, the preparations were complete: baby passport, plane ticket, and arrangements with a German nanny named Sabina.

The “great war”

Insiders to beverage recycling in Germany have coined the last ten years of recycling policy development as “the great war”. On one side are large brewers, large retailers, the waste disposal industry, the packaging sector, and DSD, the organization managing producers’ take-back obligation. On the other side are municipalities, small and medium brewers, beverage retail sector, beverage wholesalers, and environmental organizations.

The war began in the late 1990s when the government became aware that their 72 per cent refillable quota was not being met year after year. After several failed voluntary attempts by industry at increasing the refillables share, the Ministry of Environment passed a law for a depositrefund system on most non-refillable bottles. Despite ten thousand law suits filed against government concerning the new law, the unwavering Green Party introduced deposits (“doesenpfand”) by January 2003.

Opponents to deposits had to devise a new strategy to fight them. “The Islands” solution was a sure way to make deposits totally un-tenable. Trade and industry ceased work towards a nationwide system, and each retailer took back only what it sold. Known as the “retail island solutions,” the program led to a shift from beverages packaged in cans to brand-specific unique glass bottle molds, devastating the can share in Germany for years to come. Immediately, the European Commission began an infringement on the “island solutions” as a barrier to free trade. By December 2004 the MOE amended the law in order to make deposit rules simpler and to appease the European Commission. The war had ended: deposits won.

The German way: modern, high-tech, and competitive

Today, the deposit return system for beer, water, carbonated, and noncarbonated nonbeverages collects and recycles between 95 and 98 per cent of the 15 billion non-refillable containers consumed in Germany (population 82 million). One would think that with nine neighbouring countries, and about 120,000 take-back retailers, the task was un-manageable.

The universal deposit of 25 (worth 40-cents Canadian) on every container, irrespective of its size, has sig nificantly reduced many of the traditional inefficiencies of deposit refund systems. Collectively, retailers and bottlers initiated a central deposit organisation, and most retailers have invested in in-store container return auto mation. The Deutsche Plandsystem Gmbh (DPG) is the managing agency which reports directly to their board of trade and industry. DPG is in charge of: contract management; linking reverse vending machines (RVMs) with processing and counting centres; mark ing standards; IT Interface; certification man age ment; marketing and PR. The national program uses a universal barcode system, and contracts out all the various required physical operations and data management. The system design is founded on the basic principle of maintaining a high level of competition at every stage of the process. Each service provider has a portfolio of services which can be offered together or individually to retailers and bottlers. The barcode system allows this modular marketplace to operate competitively by using the program standard for data tracking and accounting.

Polluter pays

The deposit rate and recovery rate are high, as is the large pool of unredeemed deposit revenues. Based on a 95 to 98 per cent collection rate, unredeemed revenues alone bring in $120 to $300 million directly to bottlers to finance the system. These funds have been voluntarily forfeited by consumers who don’t return their containers. Retailers keep the material revenues, and are usually compensated by the bottlers with an individually agreed upon clearing fee. There is no official handling fee.

Impact on Green Dot fees

There are many variables that determine which way stewardship fees (like Green Dot fees in Europe, or Stewardship Ontario fees in Ontairo) will go year to year. One cannot make a direct link between the loss of 18 per cent of German Green Dot beverage material throughput and related fee revenue, with a subsequent increase or decrease in fees. Similar to Ontario, in 2007, after the annoucement of the Ontario Deposit Return Program (ODRP) for all liquor containers, the Blue Box Program Plan would see about 70,000 tonnes worth of material throughput and funding diverted to the deposit system. Beverage producers and retailers are quick to forecast doom, gloom, and much higher fees from reduced economies of scale in the blue box. The impact on stewardship fees in

Ontario is not known yet, but in Germany at least, fees have actually declined.

Parting thoughts

Before we left Berlin, Cate and I took a boat excursion down the River Spree through the centre of the city. For a city that was almost completely demolished less than 70 years ago, today Berlin is economically thriving, artistically renowned, and an amazing showcase of contemporary architecture juxtaposed against its dark history. As for the deposit refund system, perhaps it too will emerge as a model in contemporary efficiency and elegance in German engineering. — Clarissa Morawski


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