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Many bottled products in Germany have a property that you can get back money when you return the bottle to the supermarket (Pfand). I often notice bundles of glass bottles hanging around in the street. Would it be legal for me to take them and give it to the supermarket for the money?

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    They're usually left there so that someone who has the time and needs the money can pick them up! This is Germany's UBI (universal basic income) program...
    – user253751
    Jan 20 at 9:52
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    How do you come to the conclusion it might be illegal? Jan 20 at 12:22
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    @BernhardDöbler, because generally one cannot simply keep items of value when one finds them. The analysis of the legality is not trivial.
    – o.m.
    Jan 20 at 12:28
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    Note that whether it is legal or not, it is common practice but the expectation is that they are left for people in need to collect and make a small income from. If you're not someone in need, that wouldn't change the legality but many people would consider that you are behaving unethically and you might find yourself regarded negatively by your peers. Jan 20 at 13:01
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    @o.m. A found object of a value up to €10 need not be reported. §965(2) - Duty of the finder to notify - German Civil Code BGB. ... If the thing [Sache, object] is not worth more than 10 euros, no notification is required. Jan 20 at 13:43

3 Answers 3

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Those bottles were quite certainly abandoned by their owner with the intention that someone else picks them up, returns them to the store and pockets the money for their effort. Thus, you are free to take them. This is usual behaviour in Germany. On the other side, there is a social expectation that if you wish to discard a Pfandpflasche, you put it neatly beside the bin, not in the bin, in order to make it more convenient for the person picking it up.

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    I don't know about Germany, but this is certainly common in Scandinavia, putting recyclables by the bin after an afternoon drinking in the park. (Part of the purpose for having deposits is to reduce litter, so the authorities would want them collected; I don't know if anyone has ever been prosecuted for littering after leaving them lying around.)
    – Stuart F
    Jan 19 at 22:00
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    @StuartF I've seen a few bins in Germany that actually have small racks built into them to neatly collect the cans/bottles. Jan 20 at 13:02
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    As they say, "Pfand gehört daneben" (Pfand belongs next to [the trash can]).
    – ave
    Jan 21 at 14:41
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Germany has mandatory deposits (Pfand) on many beverage containers (both reusable and non-reusable containers), in order to encourage the use of reusable containers and to discourage littering. The amount depends on the container and original content, it may be 8 to 25 cents per bottle.

The deposit may be claimed by anyone who delivers the container to a store which sells the same brand. There is no requirement to go to the exact store which sold it, there is no requirement to be the original customer, and there is no requirement to buy anything while recovering the deposit. This means the empty bottle is an object of modest value, it can be exchanged for cash by anyone who takes the time to do it.

The legal question becomes who owns the bottle(s)?

  • It would be a conceivable explanation that the owner lost them on the way to the shop, or set them down to catch a breath from the heavy burden. Rather unlikely for a single bottle, much more plausible if you see a stack of empty beer crates on the sidewalk. §973 BGB applies:
    • If the bottle(s) are worth less than €10, you can take them and keep them for six months. After that time, if the owner didn't come along and ask, they are yours.
    • If the bottles are worth more than €10, you are supposed to report this to the municipal Fundbüro (lost items office).
      If this sounds silly, consider that the law would also apply to a full bottle of wine, or a wool scarf, or other lost items.
  • In the situation you describe, it would appear much more plausible that the former owner deliberately abandoned it, §856 BGB and §959 BGB. In that case, you can pick it up if it is in a public street.
    In many parts of Germany, it is common for people with apple trees in the garden to put any excess harvest on the sidewalk, either with or without a cardboard sign 'for free.' Nobody would call the lost&found over that ...
  • If the bottles were left on somebody's property rather than on public roads, the property owner may have a claim to them. Consider a restaurant with outdoor tables, one cannot simply go there and take the empties.

The situation you describe looks very much like the second bullet point. So yes, you could take the bottles and turn them in. That is why they left there. But if you are unfamiliar with the cultural expectations, you should probably err on the side of caution to avoid the first and third bullet points.


Leaving the legal sphere and entering economics and policy:

For most people with a full-time job, it is not rational to turn in single bottles -- one might spend 5 minutes to earn 10 cent, about 10% of the hourly minimum wage. So either people store bottles until it is worth the detour (see the example above), or they give the bottles away by abandoning them in a public place. For people without a reasonably paid job, it does make economic sense to collect bottles, especially if they can collect more than one at a time. People who do that tend to be homeless or in a precarious economic situation, augmenting a small pension or welfare payment.

If you think you are one of those people, go ahead, someone left the bottles for you. If not, taking the bottles for yourself is taking from the most vulnerable members of society.

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  • minimum wage in Germany is 12.41/hour, 5 minutes are therefore just a tad over 1 €. To make the minimum wage, one would need to pick up 4 of the 25 cent one-use bottles per 5 minutes, or 2 sixpacks (12.5 bottles) of 8-cent beer bottles.
    – Trish
    Jan 20 at 16:13
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    @Trish, I'm talking about the time it takes to get the deposit for a bottle one already has. Think about it that way: if you had two or three empty bottles, 50 cents total, and if reclaiming the deposit adds two more minutes to your shopping, then effectively you are standing in line for €15/hour. If you didn't plan to enter that shop on that day, it will more likely be five minutes rather than two minutes ... and that's without any time spent searching. The rational thing would be to throw the empty bottle away.
    – o.m.
    Jan 20 at 18:10
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    gotcha! it is an incentive to take them when you do your shopping anyway^^
    – Trish
    Jan 20 at 18:14
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    @Trish, for me, it is very much not rational for just a few bottles. But I do it anyway, because I paid the deposit and want to reclaim it. Archaic instincts, see prospect theory.
    – o.m.
    Jan 20 at 18:38
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    @o.m. I pfand my (home consumed) bottles not because of money, but because I want to ensure they'll be recycled (instead of being thrown into trash by someone who doesn't like pfand collectors, instead of flying away due to the wind and being run over etc). If I'm going out to put my bottles out I might as well take them to the store when I shop. When I drink outside though, I leave bottles I consume outside next to a trashcan.
    – ave
    Jan 21 at 14:49
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Strictly speaking, this is neither illegal nor mandated.

Ten US states, plus Guam have "bottle bills" that establish a deposit for beverage containers. Typically, these require dealers or processing centers to accept beverages from "consumers", as in California:

§ 14572.1: A certified recycling center shall accept from any consumer or dropoff or collection program any empty beverage container, and shall pay to the consumer or dropoff or collection program the refund value of the beverage container.

§ 14508: “Consumer” means every person who, for his or her use or consumption, purchases a beverage in a beverage container from a dealer.

However, there are no requirements that the processor make any effort to determine that the person dropping off the item is really a consumer, nor is it prohibited to pass off someone else's items as your own.

It is prohibited (in § 14595) to import cans from out of state, which don't have the initial deposit levied on them, so clearly potential abuse was on the mind of the legislature, but it was not concerned with turning in someone else's discarded cans.

If for some reason the processor didn't want to take your items, and you were not their consumer, you


The public policy aim of the statute is best achieved by allowing it.

Bottle bills are usually framed as anti-litter ordinances, as in California's:

Experience in this state and others demonstrates that financial incentives and convenient return systems ensure the efficient and large-scale recycling of beverage containers.... The program established by this division will contribute significantly to the reduction of the beverage container component of litter in this state.

The effect of allowing someone else to turn in a litterer's items is a small financial disincentive on the litterer and an incentive to the retriever, which is in keeping with the law's policy goals. On the other hand, prohibiting such would remove the incentives and keep the litter on the ground, which is contrary to those goals.

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    Note that it's not prohibited to pass off someone else's items as your own, but it may be illegal in some jurisdictions (example) to take recyclables that were placed out for municipal collection (as opposed to just litter on the street), as cities don't want the revenue diverted from their local recycling program, want to discourage the noise and litter associated with trash picking, and/or want to discourage the presence of homeless people. Jan 21 at 2:13

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