When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Germany

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.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Economy

Europe's Winter Energy Crisis Has Already Begun

in the face of Russia's stranglehold over supplies, the European Commission has proposed support packages and price caps. But across Europe, fears about the cost of living are spreading – and with it, doubts about support for Ukraine.

Protesters on Thursday in the German state of Thuringia carried Russian flags and signs: 'First our country! Life must be affordable.'

Martin Schutt/dpa via ZUMA
Stefanie Bolzen, Philipp Fritz, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister, Mandoline Rutkowski, Stefan Schocher, Claus, Christian Malzahn and Nikolaus Doll

-Analysis-

In her State of the Union address on September 14, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, issued an urgent appeal for solidarity between EU member states in tackling the energy crisis, and towards Ukraine. Von der Leyen need only look out her window to see that tensions are growing in capital cities across Europe due to the sharp rise in energy prices.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

In the Czech Republic, people are already taking to the streets, while opposition politicians elsewhere are looking to score points — and some countries' support for Ukraine may start to buckle.

With winter approaching, Europe is facing a true test of both its mettle, and imagination.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
Writing contest - My pandemic story
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ