German shops embrace reusable containers to cut waste

René Heiden pulls two glass yoghurt jars off the shop shelf, and lists the nearby supermarkets in which they can be returned once empty.

His Berlin grocery shop avoids single-use packaging in favour of reusable containers, a waste reduction model that is having something of a revival in Germany. But it’s surprisingly hard to get right.

“You need a range of packaging to make it as convenient as possible for the consumer,” says Heiden. An oil bottle, for example, needs a thin neck and a small spout to help it drip – “you would never put yoghurt in one of those”. Marmalade and spreads, on the other hand, work best in cylindrical jars that a knife can fully scrape.

Germany has long been praised for its recycling prowess, but its efforts to reuse packaging are perhaps more impressive. Three of its favourite drinks – beer, water and milk (arguably in that order) – are covered by nationwide deposit schemes. Food companies are starting to embrace the refill movement for other foods as well.

“I’m seeing more and more products that use reusable packaging,” says Heiden, who has devoted a wall of his shop Samariter Unverpackt to dispensers of grains and cereals from which customers can fill home-brought containers. “But I also see some producers who are trying to expand, but have to go back because the handling costs are too high.”

The problem that Heiden and others are trying to tackle is a glut of garbage that is fouling waterways, killing wildlife and – after plastics break down into tiny particles – infiltrating our organs. In 2021, the average German generated about eight times their bodyweight in waste: a whopping 651kg, more than the average residents of all but four countries in Europe. Germany created 64% more plastic waste that year than it did two decades earlier, and it burned most of it.

But it’s not just a problem here. Europe’s packaging problems have piled up as consumerism has spread and countries across Asia have closed their ports to ships full of western trash. As part of efforts to stop harmful garbage clogging landfills or being burned in incinerators, the EU has set targets to reduce packaging 5% by 2030, 10% by 2035 and 15% by 2040.

Recycling is one option, but plastic recycling is a knotty and unresolved issue. Besides, the European hierarchy of waste has put prevention and reuse above recycling since 2008. But campaigners say rules to reduce packaging are riddled with loopholes – and are calling not just for tighter regulations, but also a culture shift.

“The best packaging is the one you don’t produce,” says Nathan Dufour, who leads efforts to promote reuse systems at the campaign group Zero Waste Europe. If you need to use it – for hygiene reasons, say – “then that packaging needs to stay in the loop for as long as possible”.

Germany has a head start on many of its neighbours with its bottle deposit schemes, in which customers are charged a bit more upfront for their purchase – whether fancy juice from an organic store or cheap beer from an off-licence – and given the money back when they return the empty glass. The bottles, which get dropped off in “reverse vending machines” in supermarkets, are then transported, cleaned and refilled.

Hidden behind this process is a delicate alliance of companies that have agreed to standardise and share their packaging, some of which go back a long way. The Milch Mehrweg Pool – “Milk Reuse Pool”, or MMP – for example, was started by the German dairy industry in the 80s and formalised in the 90s.

The process has not been smooth sailing, and after 2008, the organisation was disbanded. The system continued, ungoverned, until 2022 when it was reactivated as the Mach Mehrweg Pool (“Make Reuse Pool”). Now it is working on strengthening cooperation between members and increase efficiency. It has also expanded to include other foods and drinks.

“Reusable systems are most efficient if they are scaled, if they are used a lot, if they are used in every region,” says Julia Klein, a former engineer from Siemens who runs the MMP. “Only keeping this to the dairy sector limits the potential.”

One customer is the coffee retailer Truesday; its brown bottles are on the shelves of Heiden’s store. The aim is to sell the beans for their “true price” – accounting for hidden costs and compensating for damages that can’t be avoided. To cut down on plastic waste, its founder, Henning Reiche, decided to sell the beans in MMP bottles, which he thinks also helps with the marketing. The brown glass keeps the beans safe from sunlight but customers can still see through it. “It’s a nice symbol of the transparency that we want to express with the pricing.”

The MMP has little raw data on its environmental footprint – an issue Klein chalks up to years of inactivity – but based on numbers from the mineral water industry, it estimates the average milk bottle in its pool lasts about 50 cycles in the system.

The benefits of a reuse pool include economies of scale and lower barriers to entry for newcomers. The standardisation process means bottles can be used by all companies in the pool, so “empties” need only to be taken to the nearest buyer. This cuts transport costs – and emissions.

But there are also costs. Glass bottles are heavier than single-use packaging, which increases emissions from transport, and they may need expensive cleaning equipment that small firms lack. Heide, who runs Samariter Unverpackt, says they also take more time to process within the store – and the extra seconds add up.

Countries that lack Germany’s infrastructure to process bottles – and the culture around returning them – may also find it tricky to build up such a system from scratch.

“I realised it’s a totally different story for other European countries that are starting from zero,” says Klein. Brands don’t know which labels and machinery to use, supermarkets don’t have space to stack crates and consumers aren’t used to returning empty containers.

But starting a new system offers the chance to make it more efficient than Germany’s, she adds.

“If you look from an outside perspective, it doesn’t make so much sense to carry dirty empty jars and bottles back to the supermarket,” says Klein. “In the long run, what makes much more sense is if reusable packaging is being picked up at home.”

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