31st October 2003

Raise a glass to the Danish can ban

For many years Denmark protected the environment by legally obliging manufacturers of beer and soft drinks to use returnable deposit bottles. Claiming that this represented an unfair restraint of trade, the European Commission took the Danes to the EU Court of Justice in an attempt to have the ban on cans and no-deposit glass and plastic bottles declared illegal.


Denmark’s case was that the ban was vital to environmental protection, and that it was in any case not discriminatory as it applied equally to domestic and foreign manufacturers.  Whether the ECJ would have swallowed these arguments we’ll never know, as the recently elected right wing government backed down, allowing canned beer and pop to appear in Danish shops for the first time. Yet barely a year later, brewers and distributors are beginning to withdraw them from sale because of low demand. Only 5% of the beer sold through Coop shops for example – a major outlet in Denmark -  is in cans.


Danish people are among the world’s most environmentally aware, but in this case the credit  seems to lie less with the environmental consciousness of Danish shoppers than with the deposit system. Although the deposit of 50 øre (6.7 eurocents/just over 4p) is returnable, it is paid automatically by machines which read the can’s barcode. Of course, this is state of the art technology, so it doesn’t actually work.  The bar codes can only be read if the can is in pristine condition. Spectre has visited Copenhagen several times and can vouch for the fact that Danes know how to party. Intact barcodes must be rare the morning after.


Danish Euro-MP Pernille Frahm of the Socialist People’s Party (SF), part of the European Parliament’s United Left/Nordic Green Left Group (GUE-NGL) says that “the new system was supposed to replace the ban but it simply does not work as well.” A major problem is that a large amount of beer is imported, most of it from Germany, where it is cheaper. “One in three beers drunk in Denmark now comes from abroad,” says Frahm.


Under the general principles of EU environmental law, member states supposedly have the right to introduce higher standards than those laid down in directives and regulations fixing common standards. In practice, however, the right to trade freely across borders within the single internal market invariably comes first. Through such skewed priorities, the EU is entirely responsible for the Danish problem.


Pernille Frahm explains that “The high proportion of beer brought in from abroad means that we are beginning to see discarded cans everywhere. Even if people really are able to return cans and retrieve the deposit, the huge amount of beer coming over the border undermines the system. Even with their own deposit system, beer is cheaper in Germany, the tax is lower, and people are obviously not generally going to bother going back across the border to collect a few cents. So they have no use for the bottle and some simply throw it away.”


This is a problem entirely of the EU’s making, and it is up to the EU to solve it. Pernille Frahm agrees. “We need international co-operation to solve this. German beer comes into Denmark, but Danish beer goes to Sweden, where it’s dearer still. No doubt the problem exists elsewhere. So what we need is an agreement at EU level, an agreement that when it comes to environmental protection we will respect each other’s initiatives. We had a system that worked, and now we have one that doesn’t.”


Spectre is usually sceptical of any idea that the European Union can be reformed. Like the WTO, the IMF, NAFTA and NATO, the European Union exists only to make the world safe for corporate capital. The point is not to reform it, but to get rid of it and replace it with genuine structures for international cooperation. This, however, is clearly a long term project. There is no reason, however, why, in the here and now, we should tolerate the imposition of laws which put the “right” of a few people to make money at the expense of the environment before the right of Danish people, or anyone else, to live in clean, healthy cities, towns and villages, to live without the danger and eyesore of discarded drinks cans.


The proposed EU Constitution will do nothing to reorder these priorities. We must insist that this is put to rights. Those who live in the new EU of 25 countries will have the chance next year to vote for the new enlarged European Parliament. Ask candidates about the Danish can ban, and you can at least rule out voting for anyone who does not unequivocally agree that the environment must always come before the market.