Thursday, May 19

This is how the ‘return the helmet’ system works

In Spain we use 51 million single-use beverage containers every day. They are 18,000 million a year, a figure similar to that consumed in Germany, which has twice the population. However, there is a big difference between Spain and Germany in the way of managing the enormous volume of waste they generate.

While Germany (and other European countries) has implemented a Deposit, Refund and Return System (SDDR) that recycles 98.5% of packaging to turn them into new packaging, in Spain continues to operate the Integrated Management System or GIS (blue, yellow and green containers) that only selectively collects three out of ten.

Every day in our country 28 million beverage containers are abandoned (on streets, beaches and natural places) or incinerated. Of another four million the destination is unknown.

These figures show that the current management system has inefficient separate collection rates which, according to the latest report from the European Commission, places Spain in 12th place in waste management at the European level. More specifically, the latest available data indicate very low levels of selective collection.

For glass, 709,997 tons are collected over a production of 1,513,658, which means a selective collection of 47%. For plastic, the figures indicate a selective collection of 216,817 tons for a production of 992,000 (only 22% of selective collection). In the case of metals, the situation is even worse, with selective collection at 67,889 tons of the 342,850 produced: 20% of selective collection.

Return of packaging in Germany
Return of packaging in Germany Photo: RETURNS

In total, only less than 35% of plastic, glass or metal containers are selectively collected. Specifically, one in two glass containers and one in five of the other materials. All these figures are deduced from the data provided by the GIS and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

The delicate economic situation in Spain is incompatible with the price paid by the administrations for the dumping or incineration of these containers: 68 million euros per year. If to that we add another 65 million euros, which is the value that the raw material would have (glass, aluminum, metal, plastic) in case those containers were collected selectively and could be reused to create new containers, it turns out that each year we are wasting 133 million euros.

Incentives? Large packers only pay for the containers that go to the yellow container, instead of all those that they put on the market. The difference is being paid by us, the citizens, through taxes and waste fees.

The European principle of “whoever pollutes pays” is not fulfilled either, since nowadays those who recycle pay the same as those who do not.

The SDDR arrives in Spain

Compared to the current container system or GIS, The Refund, Deposit and Return System (SDDR) would end the current inefficiency and skyrocket recycling levels, according to consumer entities. In fact, something is already moving in Spain in this sense. Returning a plastic bottle of water, a can of soda, a carton of juice or a glass bottle to the store and recovering the money previously left as a deposit could be a reality in Spain in a short time.

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The amendment to the Waste Law recently presented in Parliament by the groups of Unidas Podemos, En Común Podem and Galicia En Común and the Socialist Party opens the way for the definitive arrival of the Deposit and Return System (SDDR) in Spain, a system that was used spontaneously for many decades by many food stores.

“It is a historic commitment by the Government to the continuous demands of civil society to put an end to the waste of resources that represent the 35 million cans, bottles and cartons that are lost every day in Spain and end up in a landfill, in a incineration plant or abandoned on our streets, roads, rivers and beaches ”, declared in a statement the entity Retorna, which promotes the implementation of the SDDR in Spain.

The Waste Law must transpose the new community directivess, so the commitment to re-sell beverages with a deposit, thus recovering and modernizing the habit of ‘returning the helmet’, puts Spain at the level of the countries most committed to the fight against single-use plastics.

How does it work?

The Deposit, Refund and Return System consists of leaving a small economic amount (10-20 cents) when the customer buys a drink, which he recovers when the empty container is returned to any store or supermarket.


Forty countries and regions of the world already sell tank drinks, thus it is possible to recover an average of 90% of the beverage containers. In Portugal they have already legislated in favor of a Depository System and it will be launched shortly. In total, there are ten European countries that have it in place, but many others are already approving it.

In addition, they remember from the Retorna association, it is a practice that coexists with any other waste management system, since it is complementary to the colored containers or the door-to-door system, which continue to deal with the rest of the material flows.

The measure has no costs for the state or regional administration and generates significant savings for municipalities, since they do not have to manage the collection, treatment and cleaning of 20% by volume of municipal waste.

The store charges for each container recovered and decides whether to manage the return of cans, bottles and cartons automatically, with a machine, or manually. In Germany, for example, 80% of the return points are manual and 20% automatic.

In any case, it is not a fee, tax or canon, but a deposit that is recovered once the container is returned to the store or supermarket, so prices should not be altered.

SDDR reduces CO2 emissions from beverage packaging waste management by 50% compared to the current system. Reverse logistics are used: trucks that deliver food and drink to stores collect returned containers rather than return empty.

Export of waste

Meanwhile, a total of 61 environmental organizations, including Zero Waste Europe, as well as the European Environment Office and 36 MEPs have asked the European Commission, through a manifesto, for a regulation that prohibits the export of waste generated within from the territory of the European Union to third countries.

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«In Europe we are not interested in taking care of the waste that we cannot recycleWe create too much plastic and we don’t know what to do with it and we end up exporting it ”, denounces Joan Marc Simón, director of Zero Waste Europe. In 2019 alone, the EU exported more than 1.7 million tons of plastic to third countries in the form of waste, mainly to Turkey, Malaysia and China, according to data from this organization. The main problem with this is that this waste often ends up in uncontrolled landfills in these countries or directly disposed of in the natural environment.

Germany was in 2020 the Member State that sent the most waste outside the EU, followed by the Netherlands, France and Belgium, while Spain ranked 11th worldwide.

«Basically we get rid of it, it is a colonialism with residues, because we are exporting the garbage so as not to see it ourselves, but it has an impact on the day-to-day life of the countries that receive it, ”says Simón at the foot of the statue of a three-meter dragon spitting plastic that was placed at the doors of the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Commission, to denounce these practices.

Upon receiving the manifesto of these bodies and deputies, the European Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, Virginijus Sinkevicius, recognized the important challenge facing the EU and asserted that we must move “to real action”.

“The return system is a great saving for municipalities: there is less collection”

Interview with Miquel Roset, Director of the entity ‘Retorna’

What exactly is the container return system?

It is about being able to return cans, bottles and cartons to the store to avoid that, every day in Spain, 35 million beverage containers are lost and end up contaminating streets, roads and beaches or buried in a landfill. The operation is simple, it consists of leaving a small economic amount (10-20 cents) when you buy a drink, which you recover when you return the empty container to any store or supermarket. It is a very easy practice to incorporate and that will help us to live in much cleaner and healthier towns and cities.

Do you have data on how this system works in Europe?

It is a modern version of what we did before, when we returned the helmet, and that already works in more than 40 places around the world, such as Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Canada or Croatia. In all these sites, more than 90% of all cans and bottles are recovered, which are either refilled to be reused, or converted into new packaging. The people of these countries are proud to return the beverage containers to the store because they immediately see that it works, it is transparent and it ends up with abandoned cans, bottles and cartons. In the next three years, only in Europe eleven new countries (Scotland, England, Ireland, Portugal, Malta, Latvia, Belarus, Slovakia, Romania, Turkey and Greece) will join the ten that already sell the drinks with deposit.

“The return system is a great saving for municipalities: there is less collection”

Do you think Spaniards are aware of the impact of throwing a plastic bottle onto a mountain, beach or simply the sidewalk?

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Every time, people are more aware of the damage caused by the ‘use and throw away’ culture imposed by the large beverage brands and large supermarkets. That is why, both in Spain and in the rest of the world, all the surveys that have been carried out have shown the support of more than 80% of people to return cans, bottles and cartons to the store to prevent them from being abandoned.

Who should finance the return of the containers?

It is a practice that coexists with any other waste management system, since it is complementary to the colored containers or the door-to-door system, which continue to deal with other types of waste. The Government only legislates and it is the beverage brands and the supermarket chains that must manage the return of the containers. For the central and regional governments, the return of the containers to the store has no cost, and savings are generated for the municipalities, since they do not have to manage the collection, treatment and cleaning of 20% in volume of municipal waste, which is what cans, bottles and cartons suppose.

Isn’t the problem solved with the treatment plants?

Precisely, the Deposit and Return System must be put into operation for all containers of water, beer, soft drinks and juices, whatever their material, because they are the containers that are most consumed outside the home and the most susceptible to being abandoned. . And it is important that it incorporates both plastic bottles, cans and also glass bottles and cartons, because, if not, we will see how the containers that are not sold with the deposit system will continue to end up in landfills or thrown away by the environment. .

What can this system contribute to the environment?

The main benefit is to end the pollution generated by the 35 million cans, bottles and cartons that are lost every day in Spain and cannot be reused or recycled. Every week the plastic equivalent of a credit card enters our body, so neither our health nor our future can continue to allow this situation. In addition, returning cans and bottles to the store reduces CO2 emissions related to the management of beverage packaging waste by 50%. When drinks are sold with a deposit, reverse logistics comes into play, which consists of the trucks that deliver food and drink picking up the returned containers in stores and supermarkets, instead of leaving empty.

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