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Culture Shock: What is Pfand?

The international perspective: This column is dedicated to the more peculiar aspects of student life in Germany.


by Duygu Bräuer

Coming to a new country to study can be quite challenging at times. There are particular customs, rules and habits that international students might find odd or confusing. Today's topic is Pfand.

Since I came to Germany, I have always ended up paying more money for water than what the price on the label says. This happened basically everywhere: in supermarkets, kiosks (or “Spätis”, as they are called in Berlin), at the university canteen, or at vending machines. Later, I realised that I had no reason to develop a panic disorder. But first, I simply did not know and understand why I was paying 25 cents more for a bottle than its price tag stated. The reason for all of this is the deposit-refund system in Germany. It is called Pfand here and means that you have to pay an additional deposit that is added up to the price of a bottle or can, and which you get back once you return the container to a Leergutautomat (reverse vending machine).

In Germany, people are enthusiastic about recycling, which is surprising if you are new here. You may have noticed the recycling bins everywhere with their different colours, like yellow for plastic, blue for paper, and also a seperate one for organic waste. Additionally, there are some bigger recycling containers in every neighborhood for white and colorful glass bottles, like wine bottles, spirits and jars, for which you do not pay a deposit.

Most plastic bottles and cans, however, are included in the Pfand system. There is a symbol on the cans and bottles that indicates whether you get your Pfand back or whether you can throw the bottles or containers away (pfandfrei). You can also always check your receipt to see for which bottles and cans you have paid a deposit. This basically means that you get a sum of money or voucher (Leergutbon) for your next purchase if you return your bottles, cans, and jars to the Leergutautomat (bottle return machine) in the supermarket. It then also makes a lot of sense and is not surprising at all to see people picking up empty beer or coke bottles everywhere in the streets here, in subways, and even from bins.

There are different price categories in the Pfand system: Reusable bottles, so-called Mehrweg bottles, and jars, such as beer bottles, water bottles, soft drink bottles made from hard plastic, or (although rare) yoghurt jars each have an either 8- or 15-cent-deposit. The Pfand for Einweg bottles, that will be processed after return, such as soft plastic bottles or cans is 25 cents. So soft plastic bottles make more money than hard plastic bottles! One of the main reasons why those soft plastic bottles (PET-bottles) come with a higher deposit is to protect the environment and to encourage people to recycle their plastic waste.

The Pfand system is definitely one of the culture shocks I have experienced here. I still get frustrated about it occasionally. On the other hand, it is a good initiative to protect the environment – and I get the surplus money I spent buying bottles back. So, from my perspective, it is a win-win situation in the end.

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