Thursday, 23 September 2010

No deposit, no return

Returnable bottles instinctively make sense to most people. Why destroy a perfectly good bottle and make a new one, when it could be washed and used again?

For a long time I thought I was alone in wishing we could return glass bottles like they do in Germany, Belgium and other places. It never seemed to be on anyone's agenda. But it seems there is an undercurrent of other people who want it too. When you bring the topic up everyone likes the idea. At least, I've never met anyone who came back from a visit to Germany and said "They charge a deposit on every bottle. That was really shit."

The Campaign to Protect Rural England has called for a national deposit scheme on drinks containers (Cooking Lager put his oar in too.). CPRE's scheme is kind of rubbish really. It's not nearly ambitious enough, considering that courageous steps will have to be taken to achieve it. All they are talking about is a deposit to reduce litter.

What I want — and what all the nostalgic commenters on various websites seem to want, if their vaseline-smeared reminiscences of collecting bottles for pocket money are anything to go by (nobody seems to have been an adult in the 1970s) — is a refillable bottle scheme, not just a deposit scheme. This is what they do in Belgium and Germany (not to mention much of the rest of the world outside Europe and North America) and in Germany 91% of packaged beer is in refillable containers.

There are two things that need to be looked at here. Firstly, we had a returnable bottle system in this country in living memory and should look at the reasons why we got rid of it before we consider introducing a new one.

Secondly, we need to look at other countries and see the problems (if any) that their systems face.

It is relatively easy to determine why reusable bottles vanished. You just need to read the trade press of the 1960s. It is full of adverts for canned beer and non-deposit bottles, aimed at retailers. No taking back dripping, mouldy empties! No setting aside storage space for dirty crates and smelly bottles!

Consumers too were seduced by the idea of containers that you just throw away. Today, now that people feel obliged to take their empty cans and bottles for recycling anyway, the effort of returning bottles may not seem so great.

There are two major factors working against the returnable bottle system, even in Germany. Firstly, the retail trade hates it. It is a lot of labour and storage space that generates no profit whatsoever. The cheapskate discounter supermarkets like Aldi basically boycott the system and only sell one-way bottles and cans. It can sometimes be very difficult to actually get a cash refund as many shops will insist you spend the credited amount with them.

More ominously, and becoming more common in recent years, the marketing departments of the big breweries love creating wanky new custom bottles for each beer for "brand differentiation."

But the system only works as long as the bottles are standardised and pretty much interchangeable. Otherwise, the immense effort in sorting all the bottles undermines the entire returnable system. There's also the factor that a standardised bottle can be sent back to the local brewery. A custom Beck's bottle, on the other hand, can only go back to Bremen, even if it was sold in Berchtesgaden at the other end of the country.

All these factors are equally present in the UK, if not substantially more so. An additional issue is the abnormally high proportion of imports in the UK beer market, which understandably enough are usually in one-way bottles.

Furthermore, there are important differences. Pretty much every German brewery has its own bottling line, which is perhaps sometimes antiquated, but that also means it is long since paid for. In the UK relatively few small brewers own a bottling line, so beer is regularly tankered around the country already and reintroducing returnables would lead to large cargoes of empty bottles being transported long distances, as well as obliging the bottling facilities to invest in bottle washing and testing equipment.

I am afraid that I cannot see a returnable bottle system being reintroduced in this country any time soon, much though I would love to see it. Big retailers would have to be forced into it. Small brewers might like the idea but be put off by the investment required.

The pub trade might be a different matter. I was surprised at first to read Chris Maclean writing this in The Publican:
“I'd like to see a return to a bottle sourced from a local supplier that is used and then returned to the supplier. Disposable bottles are the invention of companies who wish to market nationally (and internationally) without the responsibility of collecting them.
I liked the returnable bottles in their cases stacked in the cellar. The deposits on them weren't huge but it felt like money in the bank. It was good to collect them and sort them. The same sort of warm feeling I mentioned earlier.”
But when you think about it it makes sense. Pubs, especially those that sell oceans of stuff like Magner's, see at first hand the waste involved in using a bottle once and dumping it. And they often, as Chris Maclean points out, have to pay for their glass disposal on top of that.

It's worth remembering, too, that the greenest way to drink beer is drinking draught beer in the pub. Or taking it home from the pub in a reusable container. No one-way packaging, no rubbish, no unnecessary transport. Perhaps the green angle is one way for pubs to thrive.


  1. Do you guys not have returnables in pubs still?

  2. A bit, still, depending where you are, but not nearly as much as just a few years ago. Harveys and probably some of the other old family brewers do them. Aren't any of those round my way though.

  3. It's mostly for soft drinks here. I guess you lot have the hose doo-dah for that.

    Boozewise, Diageo and C&C use the same returnable pint bottle -- the pubs and offies get 40c each back on them, €4 for the crate. The glass is about three inches thick so they're brilliant for homebrewing.

  4. One way to encourage recycling of bottles could be to get homebrew clubs to get together and take usable empties from pub, clean them up and get their members to use them.

  5. Ian Cowling runs Bottle Rescue in Keighley. What a good idea

  6. Interesting that two people have suggested guerilla approaches to the problem.

  7. re-fillable bottles are the norm at micro-breweries in Nova Scotia-very accepted by consumers, not to mention the label art work an industry to it self.

  8. I'm sure it's one reason Germany is to neat and tidy -- if anyone drops a can or bottle, a crowd of tramps falls on it like vultures. I'm not quite sure of the ethics of a vagrant-based street cleaning system but, hey, it seems to work.