Monday, April 25, 2005

Green Economics, German Style

A commenter in a mostly unrelated Matt Ygelsias thread suggested that the German style of bottle deposits was ideal, and I have to disagree.

Drew wrote:

I would love a German style bottle deposit system in this country. It'll never happen because retailers don't want to have a stiff $0.25 deposit put on their bottles of water.

So then I wrote:
I lived in Germany for awhile and remain convinced that their recycling system could stand some retooling. Standing in line after a little old lady pulling bottle after bottle out of her sack--"Could I have bought this one here?"--will do that to do [one]. Most of my friends seemed to accept the conversion of their private automobiles into bottle-ferries as a temporary solution; they knew it was ridiculous that their trunks and backseats were occupied entirely by crates and bottles, they were proud to recycle, and they wished they were wealthy enough to afford the pick-up service.

As it stands, the German deposit system--when it forces consumers to return to the exact spot of purchase--is an unreasonable and unsustainable imposition on consumers. I recycled diligently, but I didn't have a car, so collecting deposits was incredibly inconvenient. I support the values of the Greens and wish that reusing bottles were easier; the particular mechanism used right now in Germany, however, puts too much onus on the individual consumer.

Here, I'd like to expand a little on what I'd like to see for the German communities I saw.

Charging consumers for plastic bags is a good. Carry on. Most Germans have already learned to carry their own bags or to suck up the charges as a public penance.

Forcing consumers to return to the exact point of purchase to recuperate the pfand (deposit) is pointless: I abandoned most rights to pfand during my year in Germany, simply accepting the charge as the tax levying on the irresponsible and iternerant. However, watching my very responsible German friends carry freights of glassware from one spot to another convinced me that a more efficient system could be devised, one that optimized both the well-meaning laziness of an American such as myself--who nonetheless triaged all my trash, putting even the Pfand bottles in the bottle section--and the self-sacrifice of those Germans who were willing (or felt compelled) to shuttle their bottles back to the point of sale for those not-insubstantial euros. The answer, clearly, is recycling centers. Ones with automized machines to distribute money from the deposits. If there were such beasts in my community, nobody I kvetched with knew about them.

The more advanced--or more retrograde, I'm losing track--answer is pick-up and delivery of bottles. The wealthier in Germany are already contracting such services, but many still can't afford this simpler answer. This is no longer a question of milk delivery, after all, but water, apfelschorle, coke, and sundry other liquids. Wine, curiously enough, is exempt from most Pfand duties...


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