Denmark lifts ban on one-use-only drinks cans

Denmark has finally bowed to pressure from the European Commission to lift its ban on drinks cans, which the EC argued was in breach of the Packaging Waste Directive.

“The initiative changes the situation around the case that at present is pending at the EU court,” said the Danish Environment Ministry in a statement. A mandatory deposit scheme will replace the ban.

The history of the argument is somewhat convoluted. In 1996 the Danish Government informed the EU Commission that, as part of the implementation of the Packaging Waste Directive, it intended to keep its bottle return system in its existing form, including the ban on the marketing of metal packaging for beer and soft drinks.

However, the Commission felt that cans, glass and plastic packaging complied with the requirements of the Directive and argued that the materials in the packaging involved could all be recycled. “What is important to the Commission is not that packaging is reused, but that it is technically possible to recycle the material,” the Danish government commented.

The Commission therefore argued that Denmark could not ban the marketing of beer and soft drinks in cans and in 1997 sent the Danish government a so-called letter of formal notice on the Danish ban, the first step towards bringing the matter to the court.

In 1998, the Commission broadened the conflict with Denmark, so that it covered not only the Danish can ban, but also the view of the Commission that Danish producers should be allowed to use both refillable packaging and one-way packaging.

The Danish Government rejected the EC’s view that the Danish bottle return system infringed the Directive or any other EU legislation and alleged that the directive had not established complete harmonisation in any case. The Government called the Danish regulations a “natural follow-up of the environmental intentions of the Directive”.

The Danish fondness for glass bottles stems from the success of its recycling scheme. In 1997 the total consumption of bottles for wine and spirits in Denmark amounted to 130,000 tonnes, or 260 million bottles. The return rate for bottles in the voluntary deposit and return system was estimated at close to 90%. The remaining bottles were collected in the municipal collection schemes with other glass packaging.

Whole bottles were washed and refilled, enabling Denmark to avoid an estimated 60,000 tonnes of waste. In addition, the initiative reduced the consumption of energy and raw materials for new bottles.

However, the latest announcement represents a collapse of this system and the Danish Government’s position. EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström welcomed the announcement. She indicated that the Commission could drop the ongoing court case in a few days if Denmark’s plan proved it redundant.

The plan has also pleased Danish and non-Danish drinks manufacturers alike, for whom it will be an opportunity to expand their sales into new areas given the new harmonisation of packaging. The industry body for the steel packaging sector, APEAL, stated last year that legislation designed to cut down on the use of one-use-only packaging for beverages has no legal or scientific basis and was discriminatory, citing Denmark as one of the main culprits (see related story).

The new deposit system will set a price of DKr1.5 (€0.20) for containers of under a litre in volume and DKr4.25 (€0.57) for those of a litre and over. The Danish Environmental Agency is to set up a labelling system to ensure that bottle return machines will only take packaging sold with the deposit.

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