Good to Know: Recycling and Explaining the Pfand System in Bavaria, Germany

Bag with Pfand Bottles ready to return in Bavaria, Germany | eatexploreetc.com

Otherwise known as: Why I have to take a bag full of empty bottles with me back to the supermarket.

Recycling in Germany is a bit of a sport. There’s a whole range of rules, methods and specific locations for you to get to grips with. Sorting your waste requires effort, planning and even some temporary financial outlay!

Recycling in the UK

This is a bit of a broad subject and can vary between councils and regions. In Lancashire I have three outside waste bins. A brown one for garden waste. A black one for plastics, glass and paper and a burgundy one for non-recyclable things. Just one district over though, blue bins do the job of my black bin and paper based recycling goes in a separate white sack. Confused yet? You will be! Anyway, once you know the rules of your area you’re good to go and splitting recycling really takes no effort at all to deal with.

As a child in the early 90’s I remember bottle banks on Tesco car park. My Grandma would take my brother and I on her shopping trip and we’d get to throw all the empty wine bottles she’d stored into the colour coordinated bins. Loudly smashing glass bottles was apparently quite the fun activity! You don’t see those overly used anymore.

For anything larger that we need to get rid of in the UK, there’s usually access to somewhere known as “The Skip”. I’m sure it’s got a proper name but I don’t know it. Council run, in our area there’s one open every single day of the week and it’s a fab place to get rid of electricals, metals and all those hard to recycle ‘where do I put them?’ things. Recycling in the UK isn’t incentivised but it’s easy.

Recycling in Germany

The easiest way to approach this is with a list… Yes, it’s that convoluted.

Like in England, the rules vary by area so do check with your local council website to make sure you know what goes where! Some areas may have individual bins for paper, or a shared bin for plastic instead of yellow bags!

  • Main Waste Bins – Living in small complex of apartments, we share these:
    • Black – General household waste. Emptied fortnightly. It’s the same size as the one I have in the UK only it has to serve the needs of 6 apartments. With a cat, I’ve learnt I need to get the litter tray fully cleaned on specific days, or it won’t be going in the bin! 
    • Brown – Bio waste. Emptied fortnightly. This one is for organic matter, much like my brown bin in England. Things from the garden, vegetable peelings and plant cuttings go in this one.
  • Gelber Sack – Thin Yellow Plastic Bags:
    • Where I live, these bags come from the local council. We had to pop over to their office during the rather limited opening hours to ask for some! The irony that they’re creating thin single-use plastic bags in order to recycle plastic isn’t lost on me! This one is for things like…
      • Aluminum Packaging – foils, lids, trays
      • Cans
      • Plastics and Plastic Packaging
      • Milk Containers, Fruit Juice Containers, Tetra Packs (composite materials)
  • External Recycling Bins
    • Glass – Remember the story of breaking bottles in the early 90’s on a Tesco car park? Well those bottle bins still exist! As you’re going about your week, wash and collect any glass bottles that don’t have a pfand – spirit bottles, jam jars and sauce bottles. Carry these to your local bin and split them by colour!
    • Aluminium Cans – There’s a bin for that…
    • Paper and Cardboard – Yup, you’re gonna need to collect every bit of paper and card that comes your way and bring it here! In the summer this area is overrun by ants too – so getting things into the bin requires skill. Be quick! Be deft! Know which bin you need, get in and get out – Cause you’re gonna have ants walking up you.
    • Old Clothes and Shoes

Recycling Bins in Bavaria, Germany | eatexploreetc.com

  • Recycling Centre – ‘The Skip’, only far more orderly and barely ever open. Don’t be planning on getting rid of any junk on a Sunday, it just won’t be happening. When you do go, take proof you’re a resident of the area. They’re only for locals!

My kitchen has three separate bins and two bags to collect all of this up. Hidden under the kitchen sink there’s general waste and a bio bin. My Brabantia bin hides the yellow bag and in the corner I’ve got two Waitrose jute bags: paper, cardboard and glass in one and the pfand bottles in the other!

Pfand? What do you mean you’re not done yet?! This is the worst participation sport ever!

Dealing with the Pfand

After all of that you must be wondering how there can possibly be anything else that needs recycling. I know, I feel the same way too! But there is and this one is for drinks bottles or cans.

  • Think of a pfand as a deposit | For almost every glass or plastic bottled drink you buy in Germany, there’ll be an additional fee charged on top of the retail price. The fee depends on the kind of bottle you’ve purchased:
    • Einwegflaschen – These are disposable, single use bottles and cans with a fixed price pfand of 25 cents. The Coke bottle pictured below on the left has the Einweg symbol clearly visible just above the bar code and the amount of pfand required at the bottom.
    • Mehrwegflaschen – These are glass or heavy duty plastic bottles that can be washed, relabeled, refilled and resold. You’ll find the deposit ranges from 8 cents for a beer bottle up to 15 cents. The Löwenbräu bottle pictured below on the right shows signs of previous use in the scuff marks around it’s circumference and its pfand info under the website address.

Examples of Pfand markings on bottles in Germany | eatexploreetc.com

  • Where to get your deposit back | In short, the place you bought the item from will also return your deposit. Brace yourself for the longer version…
    • A supermarket or a drinks market (Getränkemarkt), if it sells the same type of Mehrweg product, will also take them back and refund the deposit. Note: Smaller shops are not obliged to do this if the product was not bought from them originally! So if you’ve gone out for the day and bought a more obscure bottle, you may have trouble returning it locally.
    • A supermarket or a drinks market, if it sells similar Einweg products, will also generally take those back and issue the deposit refund. Again, smaller shops are not obliged to do so if the product wasn’t bought from them originally!
    • You’re likely to find little to no problem with returning commonly sold products to your local supermarket. From Coke or Sprite bottles to standard beer bottles, you’ll probably be fine. The instances where I’ve not been able to recover a pfand on a bottle usually comes from water bottles, particularly those bought out of state.
  • How to get your deposit back | Ahah! Finally!
    • Collect – As you go about your week, once you’ve finished a bottle with a pfand, give it a quick rinse out. Unless you want to get ants, that is. And if you do, who am I to suggest otherwise! Create a tiny used bottle mountain for yourself.
    • Transport – You’re eyeing up that bottle mountain, just wishing it would miraculously disappear from your kitchen. It won’t. When you can’t stand it any longer, stick them in a bag and pick them up just before you go shopping.
    • Feed the Machine – Approach the pfand sorting machine in your local supermarket. Try not to look too confused – the locals will know you’re not from ’round ‘ere! If this machine were a Harry Potter character, it’d be the sorting hat. You feed it a bottle, bottom end first and wait whilst the machine does a bit of whirring, weighing, scanning and spinning. If it likes the bottle, it’ll swallow it up into its great cavernous bottle belly and ask for another. Yay! Remember though, it doesn’t like new things – So if you feed it a bottle it doesn’t recognise, that bottle is getting spat back at you. If you’re not all that bothered, stick it in the nearby bin and accept your financial loss. Crates of bottles can go in the bottom.

Example of a Pfand Machine in Germany | eatexploreetc.com

  • Get your Money – All done? Press the button and wait for your ticket to be printed. Pick it up and keep it handy – once you’ve done your shopping and reached the check out, hand the ticket to the employee. Try to do that before they start scanning your shopping, or wait til the end – it’s really hard to interrupt them when they’re in full scanning swing! They won’t appreciate you for it either.

After all of that I need a brew! I’ll put my tea bag in the bio bin, rinse the milk carton out, let it dry and then put it in the yellow bag. Might need to open a pack of biscuits to go with it though! The cardboard container for that can go in my Waitrose bag, sat at the side of the fridge, ready for a trip to the communal external recycling bins.

I think I might be getting the hang of this sport after all!

25th March, 2017
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