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Germany

The Consumer's Can Nightmare Continues

The "can deposit," introduced in January to a sceptical public and an incensed business world, has led to confusion in households and stores nationwide. An end to the stress may be in sight.

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Doesn't look convinced: Environmental Minister Trittin

A collective -- if inaudible -- sigh of relief should have gone through the German consumer world on Wednesday. But on the cut-off date, October 1, they are still holding their breath, waiting to see if their woes will come to an end after all. For German consumers have been plagued by a unique problem created by the drinks industry, retailers and the environmental minister. It goes by the name of the "can deposit" and consumers hoped it would have been consigned to the rubbish tip by the end of September.

Lauded by advocates of environmental protection, the can deposit requires retailers to charge consumers a 25 to 50 cent deposit on drinks in one-way packaging. Its opponents fought it to the bitter end, losing one legal case after another in numerous German courts. Finally the Constitutional Court, Germany's highest judicial power, quashed the pleas from retailers and the drinks industry on the eve of the can deposit's introduction.

Then, on January 1, 2003, being a consumer in Germany got more complicated. Gone were the days of carelessly chucking one's beer can into the trash. The ordeal agreed on by the drinks industry, retailers and the Environmental Ministry meant that buying a can of beer or a PET bottle of soda in the shop was no longer a simple transaction.

Instead of choosing a drink, paying for it and sauntering away to quench their thirst, German consumers paid the extra deposit and received a token or a receipt or a slip of paper along with the newly-purchased can. If they wanted their deposit back after draining the can's contents they had to return to the same store where they bought it, produce the can and the token, receipt or slip of paper, and only then could they get their 25 or 50 cents back.

Changing habits

Getränkedosen, Dosenpfand

Germans learned to retain and return their cans just like they had done ages ago with their reusable glass and plastic bottles. But that system was undoubtedly better, since the bottles could be returned to any shop and no proof of purchase was required to get the deposit back. Now the routine trip to the supermarket was preceded by the hunt for the token, receipt or slip of paper that corresponded to the right empty can.

Thirsty vacationers too were plagued by the can deposit during one of the hottest summers in living memory. A break to stock up on liquids at an autobahn rest stop cost an additional 25 cents for people whose journey prevented them from returning with the empty recepticle and the token, receipt or slip of paper.

Irritated consumers forced to rummage around for proof of purchase for cans have had their hopes pinned on October 1. The deal hammered out between the can deposit's opponents and Environmental Minister Jürgen Trittin required a nationwide collection system to be in operation by that date which would allow consumers to return one-way bottles and cans to any shop that sold them.

The time has come. On day one, proponents of the can deposit have been positive. Minister Trittin said things weren't chaotic. "On the whole it works well," the environmental protection organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe said after it had tested the new system. Actually there are at least three collection systems running parallel to each other. Trittin has predicted that market forces would reduce them to one system in the long-run.

"Ban on the can"

Dosenpfand wird ab nächstem Jahr pflicht

The upshot of it all has been that German consumers buy fewer single-use cans and bottles and some retailers have stopped stocking them at all. That doesn't concern Minister Trittin though, since the whole point of the can deposit was to strengthen the already existing environmentally-friendly system for reusable bottles.

But the can deposit's opponents are adamantly against the new system. "Most" companies have decided not to sell cans because they didn't think investing in a collection system would pay off, a German Retailers Association spokesman Hubertus Pellingahr told German broadcaster ZDF. The deposit is like "a ban on the can," he said.

But this may not be the end of the story. The European Commission gave Germany until October 1 to set up the nationwide collection system. If it decides the system puts European Union drinks manufacturers at a disadvantage on the German market when it examines the issue in late October Minister Trittin may have to make changes and the can deposits opponents may yet find satisfaction.

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