The return of the returnable bottle

It took nearly 30 years of debate – and eventually pressure from the European Union – to restore the bottle deposit system in Poland. At the beginning of the 1990s the reusable packaging market, especially for reusable bottles, began to die out in Poland. This was one of the few elements of the economy that was worth preserving as a legacy from the People’s Republic of Poland. In times of widespread shortage of raw materials, virtually every glass bottle circled around in the socialist closed-loop economy. At the beginning of the 90s, however, the era of disposability and plastic packaging began in Poland. And it’s only now that there’s been a rethink.

After years of talk and evaluation, as well as resistance from a range of politicians (who attempted to convince decision-makers that Poland could not afford a deposit system, the leaving Sejm still passed the amended Act on the Management of Packaging and Packaging Waste in July 2023. It should enter into force on 1 January 2025, but it will take some time for the regulations to be published. However, some details are already known. These include the obligation to offer packaging collection applies to stores with an area of over 200 square meters. Shops will accept metal cans with a capacity of up to 1 liter, disposable plastic bottles up to 3 liters and reusable glass bottles up to 1.5 liters without a receipt. Empty juice, mineral water or milk containers will therefore not end up in landfill or, in a better-case scenario, in the recycling, but will be reused. The deposit for each container will probably be (as of today) 0.50 PLN (equalling ca. € 0.11) per packaging.

Discussing the details could take a long time: for example, the system does not include small vodka bottles (0.3 litre and smaller volume), even though their sales are gigantic – according to estimates, they may amount to up to 3 million items a day. Opposition voices are calling for the delay of penalties and sanctions imposed on companies that don’t comply with the obligation to collect used packaging. However, there a question looms large, not only about the deposit system, but the approach to environmental protection in general: why is this obvious method for reducing the consumption of glass and plastic is being introduced so late in Poland? The deposit system has been in use for years by many European countries, including Germany, Lithuania, Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Belarus, Iceland and Slovakia. As a result, up to 80-90% of beverage packaging returns for reprocessing in these countries. Also opinion polls commissioned for example by “Gazeta Wyborcza,” show that Polish society is in favour of a return to returnable packaging, even if it involves additional costs.

So why is everything happening so slowly? The EU directive on reducing the impact of certain plastic products on the environment, the single-use plastics (SUP) directive, entered into force in 2019. The deadline for its implementation into the Polish legal system expired two years later, but the legislator was in no hurry to implement it. The PiS government has been postponing discussion on the introduction of a deposit system for several years, using calculations that its construction would cost about 25 billion euro, and the proceeds would not balance out against the expense. But when the Ministry of Climate commissioned the report, it made the wrong assumptions and overstated the costs. It took the threat of EU sanctions for progress to happen.

The example of the deposit system reflects Polish decision-makers’ suspicion of environmental protection plans: Poland faces increasing water shortages, but local government officials and farmers are avoiding the topic of the restoration of wetlands and retention. An increasing amount of electricity is generated from renewable energy sources, and at the same time the government continues its efforts to make life difficult for prosumers. The system of controlling the quality of rivers does not work, which will more and more often lead to disasters such as the one on the Oder river in summer 2022. At the same time the government is preparing a special Oder river act, which, according to experts, is a complete legal hoax. All this reveals a paradox: Poland’s ecological policy, which will become increasingly essential in the coming decades, is still treated as a fifth wheel, a burdensome duty, an EU order. This is an unforgivable mistake. We should be fighting for every ton of glass and plastic: a world where every kilogram of every raw material is priceless now looms on the horizon.


Michał Olszewski (born 1977) – journalist, reporter, writer. For more than twelve years he worked for Gazeta Wyborcza and Tygodnik Powszechny, where he concentrated mostly on environmental issues. He is engaged in a Krakow-based campaign against air pollution.

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