One of the first things you will see when entering a German supermarket, are big grey or black machines and, depending on the time of the day, a queue of people in front of them. What are they doing there? And why do they have big bulky bin bags loaded on their shoulders?
It might seem strange at first – but the bin bags are basically full of money – money in the shape of large and small plastic bottles, glass bottles and beverage cans. The big machine a German Pfandautomat, a reverse vending machine. It swallows all your bottles and cans, and rewards you with either a cash voucher or coins. Welcome to the German world of recycling!
Some of these Pfandautomaten only take single bottles at a time, some take four bottles at once, and really big ones even allow you to put in crates. Pfand translates as 'deposit', which means that you pay a bit more when you buy bottles or beverage cans, yet this small amount is paid back to you when you return them. A win-win-situation for both people and the environment.
To be honest: sometimes it is annoying. Especially when I was a student, I always forgot to take the plastic bottles with me when I went to the supermarket. Hence, more and more empty bottles appeared in my room, they multiplied in corners and made my room look like a rubbish dump. Yet, these bottles are valuable objects, so binning them was not an option. The solution to my Pfand-returning laziness was finally found after my return from Durham in 2013: Tom!
When I first showed him a Pfandautomat, he was in absolute awe. Feeding the machine with bottles and collecting the coins afterwards – my English man found a new hobby and I did not have to worry about bringing the bottles back myself anymore. Perfect match!
With the introduction of the extended Pfand-system in 2003, which now includes Pfand for cans and plastic bottles, a new phenomenon took over. Or rather: Certain people took over!
When Germans have a night out, they often take a so-called Wegbier, a beer on the way to the club/bar/etc. (yes, drinking on the streets is allowed in Germany!). But, as you can imagine, nobody really wants to carry around an empty bottle for the rest of the night. Therefore, the beer bottles or cans are usually left in a dark corner, or thrown in a bin. But that’s like throwing money on the streets, right!? Well, that’s exactly what a lot of people thought that don’t have enough money, are homeless or in need. We call them Pfandsammler – Pfand collectors, i.e. people that collect all the bottles and cans that they find on the streets.
On the one hand, these people are helping to keep the cities clean, especially parks. There are even people who buy tickets to big music festivals, not primarily to listen to the music, but to collect the countless beer cans that festival visitors leave behind. Hence, they must be easily able to balance out their costs to get onto the premises with the Pfand they collect, and more so, leave the festivals with a decent profit. Another win-win situation: The festival organisers do not have to get rid of the mountains of cans themselves, and people make a decent amount of money. Perfect, isn’t it?
I would love to say yes, but unfortunately, like most things, there is a downside to the phenomenon: Most Pfandsammler do not only take what’s left in parks or on the streets – they have started to rummage through bins, either with garbage tongs or with their bare hands. So, if you have ever been to a German city and saw a person having their arm deep down in a litter bin, that’s why! Moreover, Pfandsammler seem to have their own little territories. Several times, I have witnessed one Pfandsammler chasing after another, accusing him or her of stealing their Pfand. On one occasion, I even saw a woman climbing down on the train tracks, because she saw a plastic bottle there. This shows how greed and envy seems to have replaced some people’s sanity.
In order to ‘help’ the Pfandsammler, an initiative started that asks people to put their empty Pfand next to the bins, rather than throwing them in. This way, Pfandsammler do not have to rummage in litter bins, which I am sure, they don’t like to do.
Sticker on bins, saying: "Pfand belongs next to the bin."
To cut the story short:
If you go on a night out in Germany and treat yourself to some Wegbier, please leave your bottle next to a bin. This way, you can be sure it’ll be gone the next morning and nobody had to dive into the litter for it.
Otherwise: embrace this recycling system that benefits the cleanliness of our cities, our environment and your wallet! Keep your bottles, don’t squish them, don’t remove the bar code and return them to the Pfandautomat. It will definitely put a smile on your face! Thanks!