At the end of last year, a study by British environmental consultancy Eunomia named Germany the world's best recycler, with the country recycling 56 percent of its household waste. But since then, various media reports have given the impression Norway was way ahead.
International media have carried the news that Norway recycles 95 percent of its polyethylene terephthalate — or PET — bottles, and social media has run with it, with a video posted by the World Economic Forum celebrating this impressive figure achieved through a tax and deposit system.
"Norway is very proud of its bottle deposit system," said Peter Sundt, general secretary of the European Association of Plastics Recycling and Recovery Organizations, and a Norwegian himself.
The system is simple: Manufacturers of beverage bottles are subject to a high tax on their product. But they get a rebate depending on how many of the empty containers they collect from across the country. Sundt says this makes a lot of sense in Norway, where taxes are seen as a simple and effective tool.
For customers, this means they pay a deposit on each PET bottle, which they can reclaim by returning it to a kind of reverse vending machine. Recycling companies process the empty bottles, turning them into PET flakes with a high level of purity that can be made into new bottles.
"The material that's collected is of high value and the businesses are very keen," Frank Welle of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging in Germany told DW.
PET flakes and recycled materials — including PET bottles — have become a valuable commodity.
Unpicking the figures
Germany has an almost identical system. And despite all the recent social media attention on Norway's success story, a closer look at the figures suggests Germany may still be using it to better effect.
Sundt says Norway's much-quoted 95 percent recycling rate is actually the return rate, including everything that's collected and doesn't end up polluting the land or sea — even if ultimately the bottles end up being incinerated rather than recycled.
Sundt doesn't know how high the actual recycling rate of PET bottles in Norway is — the data just isn't available — but he estimates the figure to be at about 80 to 90 percent.
"That's still very high," he told DW.
According to a report by the German Society for Packaging Market Research, 93.5 percent of all PET bottles in Germany were recycled in 2015, and 97.9 percent of PET bottles were sold with a deposit on them.
Visit a German supermarket on any given Saturday and the queue for the deposit return machine for disposable bottles makes it clear how conscientiously Germans collect their PET bottles.
The German system works in much the same way as the Norwegian one, but without the tax on drinks packaging. Instead, the scheme is mandatory.
All that glitters…
As an incentive for businesses, the material belongs to the company that collects the bottles. If you buy a bottle at an Aldi store and return it to a Lidl store, Lidl benefits — either from recycling the high-grade PET, or from selling it. The Schwarz group, the company that owns the Lidl and Kaufland supermarket chains, has become the fifth-largest waste disposal company in Germany.
Since the system was introduced in 2003, supermarket chains have come around to the idea, because they do very well with it, Welle said: "In 2003, everyone was complaining about the deposit system. But if you tried to do away with it now there'd be an outcry."
But even with all that PET being broken down and fed back into the system, the bottle you take from the chiller in a German store will only contain up to 28 percent recycled material. Any more than that raises technical challenges, says Thomas Fischer, head of circular economics at German environmental nonprofit Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH).
"If more than a third is recycled, you get an ugly yellow-brown tinged material," he explained.
That makes it suitable for colored bottles, but not transparent ones.
"Consumers don't like to buy colored bottles — they want to see what's inside," Fischer said.
That means around 70 percent of the bottles' material comes from crude oil, while much of the recycled PET flakes get diverted into different products, likes plastic film and fleece for clothing.
"So it's really not a closed cycle," Fisher said.
Recycling vs. reusing
But unlike Norway, Germany does have a working alternative to PET recycling that environmental groups say is greener: Bottles are collected, cleaned and refilled. Norway got rid of deposits for reusable bottles in 2014, while in Germany the two systems still exist side by side.
"Glass bottles can be refilled up to 50 times, plastic bottles between 20 and 25 times," Fischer says. "In any case, reusing is always better from an energy and climate protection perspective."
Still, not everyone sees it that way. A study by the Heidelberg Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (Ifeu), commissioned by the German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films in 2010, found that disposable PET bottles are not necessarily more harmful to the environment than reusable glass bottles.
"Sweeping, black-and-white judgements over one form or other of drinks packaging don't do the situation justice and never have," Ifeu's Benedikt Kauertz told DW.
There are a lot of factors to be taken into account: the distance empty bottles travel by truck for cleaning and refilling, compared to the distance to the nearest PET recycling plant, and where the water for the cleaning process comes from.
In 2013, a Norwegian study found that the recycling system saved 18 percent in carbon emissions compared to reuse. That has not settled the question, though, even in Norway.
"It's an endless debate; the answer always depends on who you ask," Sundt said.
In Germany, no one expects to give up their ritual of returning bottles for reuse any time soon. But whichever scheme is better, Norway and Germany are unusual in having a bottle deposit scheme at all, putting them ahead of most countries in the world.