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The case for PET refillable bottles

Otto Appel

PETnology spoke with Dr Thomas Hens, Head of Technical Development

and Resources at Gerolsteiner Brunnen GmbH & Co. KG in Gerolstein, Germany

Are refillable bottles really still “everybody’s darling” in Germany or will they soon vanish from supermarkets? Among its European neighbours, Germany is one of the few countries where refillable bottles, especially for mineral water, are still available. Belgium and Sweden are the only other countries where refillable bottles are sometimes used. In terms of the international market, South America in particular still uses refillable bottles for soft drinks. Given the immense commercial success of PET single-use bottles at discount supermarkets, it’s worth asking whether refillable bottles may soon also disappear in Germany. PETnology spoke about this with Dr Thomas Hens, Head of Technical Development and Resources at Gerolsteiner Brunnen GmbH & Co. KG in Gerolstein, Germany. 

Although sales of single-use bottles initially declined following the amendment to the packaging material ordinance in 2003, their numbers have since not just reached pre-amendment levels again, but increased even further. Whereas in 2003 the market share for single-use bottles was around 30 to 35%, today single-use bottles account for 50 to 55% of all water bottles sold. 

But according to Dr Thomas Hens, “the distribution of containers in the water market has become consolidated. Many consumers of mineral water prefer reusable containers, and this is especially true for customers who are conscious of quality and brand. Many consumers opt for premium glass or PET refillable mineral water bottles. Moreover, the choice between reusable and one-way packaging is also affected by the context.” Refillable bottles have a long tradition in Germany and are also valued for practical reasons: “It is much less hassle to return empty bottles into a crate than to collect them and return them to the collection point in rather unsuitable containers.” As Dr Hens explains, attractive new packaging for mineral water has led to a veritable renaissance for refillable glass mineral water bottles in recent years. 

“In 2010, we launched our custom glass refillable bottle. It was a huge commercial success and sales are increasing each year,” Hens reports. In terms of longevity, cleanability and diffusivity, glass bottles are second to none, but they have the disadvantage of a higher weight, which lead to higher transport costs and therefore a larger CO2 footprint than plastic bottles. In terms of resource management and environmental compatibility, plastic bottles have clear advantages. “Refillable PET bottles are by far the most environmentally friendly product. They have the smallest environmental footprint and are superior to single-use bottles even with further reductions in weight,” notes Hens. “The market trends in Germany show that refillable glass and PET bottles are popular packaging options for mineral water,” Hens continues. Regarding single-use bottles, he does not see the use of recycled materials as the ultimate solution, but instead raises these provocative questions: “Is it imperative that post-consumer PET is always reprocessed into bottles? Are there really serious differences in the environmental footprint between reusing a bottle and producing a sweater? Is the quality of post-consumer PET actually suitable for direct contact with food, such as natural mineral water, at all times?” In Hens’s view, the future is less in bottle-to-bottle recycling than in renewable raw materials that offer the same level of quality as virgin resin in all respects. In some cases it even seems to be possible to produce plastics that have higher barrier properties than PET.

Hens notes that there are critics who see the production of plastic from renewable raw materials as competition for food supply. In his opinion this is not entirely unfounded, but he calls on the industry to seek solutions that give equal consideration to all interests. He sees good initial efforts being made and hopes that more and more raw material producers, machinery manufacturers, bottle manufacturers as well as fillers give this issue consideration and come up with acceptable, environmentally-friendly solutions in the foreseeable future. There is still a lot of work to be done.