Another look at plastics: the German deposit system

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Plastic, which was highly prized in previous decades, has in recent years been strongly rejected by the citizens of the Earth. It is now considered a major source of pollution, and rightly so. Our disastrous management of the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic produced each year is today the cause of pollution of our rivers, our seas, all living beings, the soil, the air... Micro-plastics are now present everywhere in the environment we live in. And yet, some plastic, if well managed, could temporarily provide a solution to its own problem.

TLDR: The deposit system, as introduced in Germany, has significant advantages. By doing away with single-use packaging, we improve the environmental impact of the products we consume.

Let's start by saying that the bad environmental footprint of single-use plastic is not in question. In this article we look at the German deposit system that allows the collection of glass, aluminium and plastic containers if they are intact. Beyond the very efficient collection, this system allows a much better treatment of this waste so that its use is no longer really considered as unique. Also, other countries such as Austria, Switzerland and Sweden have set up waste collection and deposit systems that are just as effective as the German system even though they present differences.

Map of European countries that implemented a general deposit system to collect plastic glass and aluminium containers and reuse them before recycling. Global Warming. Climate Coping.
European countries implementing a deposit system


In Germany, the deposit on returnable packaging is a levy on reusable bottles and containers which is repaid when the packaging is returned after use. It is most frequently levied on beverage packaging. In contrast to the deposit on non-refillable packaging, where only the material of the packaging is reprocessed after return, for example into plastic granulate, the deposit on reusable packaging involves cleaning bottles and containers and returning them directly to the goods cycle. The reusable deposit on beverage bottles was first introduced in Germany in 1929 by Coca-Cola. As early as 1928, there was a deposit on reusable biscuit tins, which was calculated according to the conditions of an association of German biscuit manufacturers .

Economic and ecological aspects

Despite the high transport costs, the reusable system is in many cases more environmentally friendly than the one-way deposit system. Returnable glass bottles can be filled up to 50 times. PET plastic bottles, that are significantly thicker-walled and more stable than one-way bottles only need to be replaced after about 20-25 returns. It is important that as many bottles as possible return undamaged, as this is the only way to ensure that the investment in durable bottles that can be filled several times is worthwhile. Deposit systems achieved return rates of up to 99%, twice as high as dual systems.

According to the study "Reusable and recycling systems for selected beverage packaging from a sustainability perspective" carried out by the auditing company PricewaterhouseCoopers for Deutsche Umwelthilfe, the use of reusable packaging results not only in positive ecological effects but also in positive employment effects, since more jobs are needed to operate the return systems despite economic advantages.

Infographics. What is a deposit legislation, how to implement a deposit system lawfully. The refund (pfand) system. Global Warming. Climate Coping.
Deposit legislation, by Container Deposit System

Examples of returnable packaging

You always pay for returnable bottles as much as you get back when you return the empties. According to the website the following deposit amounts are charged for PET bottles and other beverage packaging:

  • Reusable glass beer bottles: 8 cents

  • Reusable beer bottle with swing stopper: 15 Cent

  • Reusable mineral water bottle (glass or PET): 15 Cent

  • Reusable bottles for juice or soft drinks: 15 Cent

  • disposable bottles and disposable cans: 25 cents

There is no uniform marking of reusable packaging. It can be recognised by the words "reusable bottle" or "reusable deposit bottle" on the label. The symbols "Mehrweg - für die Umwelt" or "Blauer Engel" (Blue Angel - reusable) also indicate reusable packaging. Alternatively, lettering can also be embossed directly on the bottle, such as Leihflasche Deutscher Brunnen GDB for the Normbrunnen bottle, VdF-Pfandflasche, VdF Mehrweg Reusable / Réutilisable, Mehrweg-Deposit or similar.

In the case of bottles that have already been refilled several times, there are often matt stripes above and below the label, so-called circulation marks that are caused by friction between the bottles in the filling plants and increase with the frequency of the circulation. Some returnable PET bottles also have small triangles below the label which mark the number of circulations. A returnable bottle can be identified by these stripes, triangles or by the embossing, even without a label.

The swedish deposit system in a collecting station with a couple bringing back containers to reuse. No more single use containers. Global Warming. Climate Coping.
Swedish deposit station, by Swedbrand Group

Don't hate plastic, hate single-use

Even if we deliberately ignore here the drawbacks of such a system, the idea is simply to show that there is a way to better manage our plastic containers so that they are reused and never end up in nature. Thus, eliminating 100% of the world's plastics may not be the best solution. Indeed, aluminium and glass alternatives to plastic bottles also have a high environmental impact in extracting necessary materials such as silica from the environment. Replacing plastic containers with cardboard has an impact on deforestation. Cotton or nylon tote bags and bags must be used many times before they have an environmental impact lower than a plastic equivalent. And examples of this type are everywhere. In fact, it may not be just plastic that we have to fight the war, but rather the mentality of single use. Because if we replaced all our packaging with something other than plastic, we would only be shifting the problem.

Discover more:

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- The amount of e-waste is exploding and poses an environmental problem

- Are renewable energies really that clean?

- Man-made global warming: what are the current effects?