Usually, clearing up after a party is a thoroughly depressing experience. Not only do you repeatedly discover as you open up draws, lift up mats and clean bathtubs that friendship is no barrier to people obeying their natural (and less natural) drunken urges in your flat, you also realise that you’re going to have to carry about thirteen stone of glasses down to the bottle bank, the bag leaking a mixture of stale beer and flat rum and coke onto your left slipper as you go.
However, in this last point, Germany has a way of making you feel better. For, as you might expect, when in comes to beer, the Federal Republic has a finely honed distribution system – an important part of which is Pfand, best translated into American English as “bottle deposits”. British English doesn’t have a translation because we don’t have a comparable system, what with Britain’s habit of barely recycling anything at all.
So what is Pfand, for my British readers, and those from other similarly backward countries? And what’s so great about it?
Pfand is a certain portion of the price on a bottled drink that you get back if you return said bottle to a certified outlet. For glass or heavy-duty plastic bottles that can be refilled (in German: Mehrwegflaschen), this is €0.08 per bottle, which may not seem like a lot; for recyclable but non-reusable thin plastic bottles and aluminium cans, however (known as Einwegflaschen), it’s a whopping €0.25 per bottle.
This means that if I purchase a six-pack of beer for, say, €5,00, I get €0.40 back. And if I purchase a six-pack of cola or lemonade, I’m in for €1.50, which isn’t a negligible amount of money to get back. Even better, I can retrieve this by simply returning the bottles to a supermarket store which sells drinks, regardless of whether I bought them there or not: this is because German law states that all shops over a certain size selling bottled drinks have to have a Pfandrückgabestelle, or place to return bottles with deposits.
Most supermarkets do this with a pair of slightly space-age looking machines – one for each type of Pfandflasche – into which hung-over adults and excited children feed their bottles hour after hour, day after day. The bottles are either accepted or rejected according to whether they are in the correct machine, whether they were produced and bought in Germany, and whether they are covered by the system or not. Wine and spirits bottles, for example, are not, since there is wide variety of shapes and sizes and none can economically be returned to the correct place to be refilled; beer and soft-drinks, however, have standardised bottle shapes and are interchangeable between producers.
All of which makes a post-party trip to the Pfandautomat an adventure in itself. Why won’t it take that Red Bull can? Oh right, it’s a 0.5 litre can and they’re only available in Holland! And what’s wrong with that beer bottle? Oh yeah, Markus brought that back from his trip to the Czech Republic…
Even with the odd outsider nestling in your bags, however, the post-party Pfand-trip is above all profitable. If you bought a whole crate of beer and then return it, you get at least €2.50 just for the plastic crate, plus another €0.96 for the 12 bottles. We bought four crates for my birthday party, so returning these alone netted our flatshare around €14; and this despite our rather unfortunate losses thanks to the less community-spirited guests…
You see, back in Britain I would have loved for people to take their bottles with them after a party; it really would have saved me time the following morning. In Germany however, taking bottles with you from a party is usually bad form. There’s a sort of unspoken agreement that the deposit on it, however small, represents a kind of tip for the people kind enough to let you ruin their flat, i.e. “here, some of my friends probably peed on the rug in your toilet, so put this towards a bottle of carpet shampoo.”
Pfand changes the social landscape in other ways, too. In countries I lived in without a deposit system, a continuous point of discussion in flat-shares was whose turn it was to buy toilet roll, washing-up liquid, etc.; it usually ended up with one person agreeing to buy it and then “forgetting” until I eventually got sick of wiping my backside on newspaper and took care of it myself. In Germany, however, the solution is a simple as it is elegant: I simply wait until my flatmates have drunk enough beer to net me six or seven Euro worth of Pfand and then take the bottles to the supermarket, reinvesting the money immediately in all the things we need to keep the flat from looking like a pig-sty. Think about it: if they’re too lazy to buy toilet paper, they’re sure as hell to lazy to carry several kilos of bottles back to the supermarket, so everyone’s happy.
So despite the odd depressing insight into the lack of manners amongst party guests and the seemingly congenital laziness that afflicts so many people I know, I never mind so much about clearing up after a party in Germany…