Ecological War Brews Over Germany's Reusable Beer Bottles

Environmentalists and beer companies have common cause to oppose new tax rules that may reduce the level of recycling.

Bottling beer in Germany
Bottling beer in Germany
Carsten Dierig

COLOGNE — After outraging environmental campaigners with a recent law obliging businesses to issue a receipt for every transaction, the German Ministry of Finance is now at the center of another major conflict with environmental implications.

This time the dispute is over a plan to change taxation laws regarding the deposit that beer companies hold in order to pay customers for returning empty bottles. Breweries in Germany claim this change could threaten the established practice of using returnable, reusable bottles.

The disagreement was sparked by a message the Ministry sent to the tax office last year saying there would be a change to how empty bottles are accounted for on brewing companies' balance sheets. The gist of the change is that breweries will no longer be allowed to hold cash reserves to pay customers who return bottles for reuse.

The practice has been in place for decades, as breweries have an obligation to accept — and pay for — crates and bottles from customers who return them. The reserves ensure that the companies have enough money to do so.

So-called individual bottles — bottles, for example, with the brewery's name or logo engraved on them — are not affected. As such, many businesses may end up switching to those kinds of bottles, according to the Association of German Brewers.

But for environmentalists, those bottles are problematic because they don't get refilled and can only be returned to the specific brewery that issued them. For example, Krombacher won't use bottles with the name of its competitor Veltins engraved on them, and vice versa.

This means that the bottles with these branded logos have to be transported from all over Germany to a specific location, instead of being refilled at any local brewery. And that results in millions of additional kilometers traveled and increased pollution, not to mention the extra work — and higher associated costs — needed to sort the bottles.

Whose bottle is it anyway?

"This could have a very damaging effect," says Holger Eichele, director of the Brewers' Association, which estimates that around 20% of beer bottles are engraved with an individual logo or name.

Portrait of a beer bottle (Berlin) — Photo: Zoetnet

Environmentalists are outraged. "The Ministry of Finance is directly undermining efforts at environmental protection," says Thomas Fischer, head of the Circular Economy Program at Environmental Action Germany. "It's high time that protecting the environment was made a priority."

Fischer is especially surprised by the finance minister, Olaf Scholz, who took an active part in introducing the government's recent environmental protection measures. "It's a huge mess," Fischer said in an interview with Die Welt. "Small and medium-sized breweries make a huge contribution to protecting the environment by reusing their bottles. And now the changes to taxation will punish them for doing so, perhaps even put them out of business."

The Ministry of Finance dismisses the heavy criticism. "In our opinion, the tax changes would not incentivize breweries to use individual bottles," it responded when asked about the issue. "Generic bottles and individual bottles will not be taxed differently. Any suggestion of breweries changing to individual bottles must therefore be motivated by other considerations."

The Ministry is still in discussions with the German state governments and beer industry on this point.

The backdrop to this planned new legislation is a Federal Fiscal Court judgment from 2013. The original case was about a mineral water producer, but the judgment will now be applied to the beer industry as well.

The central issue is who the bottles belong to: If they have a name or logo engraved on them, they can be attributed to a specific brewery and remain that brewery's property, even when they're in the possession of consumers. Generic bottles, however, become the property of the consumer, and that then affects how they are taxed.

The situation is different with mineral water. The companies also have bottles with individual designs, but all the bottles belong to the German Mineral Water Association. The breweries, in contrast, have long been unable to agree on a joint industry association.

We know breweries that wouldn't survive.

The Brewers' Association estimates that there are around 3 billion bottles currently in circulation and that together, they represent an overall cost of hundreds of millions for the companies. "We know breweries that wouldn't survive that," says Eichele.

Environmental campaigners are demanding that the regulations be reversed. "Counterproductive taxes that ignore an opportunity to protect the environment, significantly disadvantage those who are engaging in best practice, and endanger medium-sized businesses must be changed," says Fischer.

"What's important is what comes out of this," says Fischer of the Circular Economy association. "What we'd like to see are measures that contribute to environmental protection, and that offer financial incentives, not additional burdens."

At the moment, around 82% of beer bottles are reusable, according to the federal environment agency. That means breweries are the last great recyclers in this area. Mineral water especially tends to be sold in single-use plastic bottles, but recently there has been an upsurge in the use of cans. Experts don't, however, condemn all single-use packaging. Around 99% of cans in Germany are recycled, and even single-use plastic bottles can find new uses if they're returned to recycling centers.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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