Recycling bottles could be so much more effective in Britain. The comments, “but we already do” and “how?” may be fair, but casting our eye across the water would reveal ‘a more effective system’. Recycling bottles in Germany entails separation of plastic and glass bottles by the customer, and ensures that separation, with bottle tops, thus simplifying the whole process from the start. From 2006, customers in Germany have been able to return empty plastic and glass bottles in supermarkets and get a refund via the till receipts for their shopping.
This is achieved by so-called reverse vending machines. That’s the English term given for Leergutautomat: Leergut, or emptied packaging, particularly one-way bottles. These machines were announced by the (Green) Minister for Environment in Germany in 2003 and introduced on a grand scale back in 2006, mainly to curb the flood of one-way bottles, which were pushing the Mehrwegflaschen (returnable bottles) out of the market. Furthermore, it was intended to encourage people to recycle the bottles, rather than throw them away or worse, to leave them lying around, as happens in the UK.
Such a system was welcomed throughout society, and was successful from the start. From 2006 all packaging for beer, mineral water, refreshment drinks in cans and one-way bottles, made of plastic and glass, were sold with a compulsory deposit of €0.25. That amount is high enough to encourage people to return the bottles. Imagine if it were only €0.05; people would not necessarily make the effort to return bottles to the nearest supermarket.
All supermarkets had to install machines which would accept the bottles from everywhere else; the condition depended on the material, not the shape. If a supermarket sold the material, it had to accept bottles of the same materials. All other glass bottles have an 8 to 15 cents deposit return. The machines cost about €25,000 each, so that’s a large investment, and are made principally in Germany or Norway.
How does it work?
How exactly does the machine work?
The customer inserts the bottles into a tube, it is scanned, then goes along an internal conveyor belt. Plastic is selected first, is shredded or flattened and deposited into a container, which needs to be emptied by personnel when full.
Glass continues and is carefully stacked at the end; it must then be manually placed into a crate. Crates of drinks can also be fed into the machine at the bottom. In all cases the camera inside recognises the containers (after all, it’s seen it all before) and can deal with it all – even full bottles, wrongly placed ones and ones which have had no deposit paid. It simply rejects them. How?
Over the years the internal camera has learned to recognise the numerous bottles available on the market, and has built up a memory bank of images. In effect it is an AI-trained camera. For instance, when putting a British plastic bottle from Aldi UK into the tube recently, the machine simply pushed the bottle back out. Why did it not accept it? It was a different size, shape and did not have the correct barcode on it. This rejection even occurred with a bottle from Austria here in Germany.
The amount per bottle appears on the small screen, and when complete the customer presses the green button, receives a voucher and hands it in at the cash desk; either on its own or, more likely, by receiving a reduction of the total for one’s shopping.
Watch the (children’s) videos
The links below, aimed at children, visually explain the process, in German, but the pictures and diagrams actually are simple enough to understand the process.
Leergutautomat – Die Seite mit der Maus – WDR (wdrmaus.de) ‘The Programme with the Mouse’ is very popular with children. The Globus Weltentdecker (World discoverer) is also a popular source of info on all subjects. Wie funktioniert ein Leergutautomat? – Globus erklärt es – YouTube
If you are really intrigued, why not click this link, then the audio bar on the right of the webpage and LISTEN to the sounds you are likely to hear when at a machine! If you want even more information; click here for the Wikipedia entry.
How society deals with its waste
The background to all these developments needs to be viewed as part of the larger picture in many European countries, including Britain. Managing our waste over the last few decades has developed on an industrial scale,and contributes to a considerable proportion of a modern economy. It is big business and of course absolutely necessary. The more a society can handle and deal with all the different types of waste efficiently, the better for the environment, the wellbeing of its people and perhaps for the image of that society beyond its own borders.
Herzlich willkommen to Germany! On Saturday 15 April the last three atomic power stations were finally shut down, by the push of an ominous red button. However, this is just one example of how consequential the country – politicians, Bürgerinitiave (pressure groups) and large sections of society – takes decisions relating to their surroundings in which they live. After all, they do not want to live in their own mess! Germany takes the environment very seriously and has done so since the late ’60s, when it was among the leading group of countries on evolving measures to combat that perennial problem of waste.
Recycling is a bit of a misnomer. There is no ‘cycle’ as such involved, particularly with plastic. Glass is melted down and then reused. Plastic poses so many more problems. What we should be aiming at is a completely, 100% circular economy. The plastic should be reused, not cast aside beyond our view. So, the question can be asked what happens to the plastic bottles once they have been collected and compacted in the German machines. Expect further articles on this in Kent Bylines.
Is Britain ever going to introduce these machines?
Environment Secretary, Michael Gove MP announced their introduction back in March 2018. What happened there, then?
Recently, on 12 February 2023, the UK Environment Ministry publicised plans to introduce bottle deposits from October 2025, as announced here. (Getränkepfand ab 2025 in ganz Großbritannien und Nordirland (euwid-recycling.de) )
Scotland has also considered their introduction: Reverse vending machine installation in Scottish Government buildings (Deposit Return Scheme): EIR release – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)