Packaging Act 2023 - What does it mean for me as a restaurateur?

According to the new packaging law in Germany, reusable packaging will be mandatory for the catering industry from 2023. In addition to disposable containers, reusable containers for takeaway food and to-go beverages will become mandatory for restaurants and cafés, caterers and delivery services. With the new Packaging Act, the German government aims to drive forward climate protection and sustainability and reduce the amount of plastic waste generated each year. The catering industry sees the new requirements first of all as an additional expense. But restaurateurs who make reusable containers the new standard at an early stage are not only fit for the regulations that will apply in the future, but can also secure a competitive advantage.

What does the new packaging law mean for the catering industry? To whom exactly does the reusable packaging requirement apply in the catering industry? And how can restaurateurs best implement reusable as an alternative? We will show you below how you can meet the challenge of reusable and mandatory reuse to support environmental protection and sustainability.

Table of contents

To whom does the packaging law apply?

On July 5, 2017, the German Bundestag passed the Packaging Act (VerpackG), which came into force on January 1, 2019, as scheduled. This is intended to meet the demands for greater sustainability in packaging and aims to reduce the environmental impact of packaging waste. As a result, final distributors of service packaging will have to pay for the recycling of their packaging and register in the LUCID packaging register from July 1, 2022. In addition, from January 1, 2023, all restaurants, cafés, bistros and delivery services that offer takeaway meals and to-go drinks will berequired to use reusable packaging.

Exemptions for small individual businesses at a glance:

  • Businesses with less than 80 square meters of floor space and a maximum of 5 employees are exempt from the reusable packaging requirement.
  • However, they must fill customers’ own containers on request and comply with the appropriate hygiene measures.

Exceptions are smaller individual businesses such as snack bars, kiosks, late-night stores, and food service establishments with less than 80 square meters of floor space and no more than 5 employees. However, they are obliged to fill containers brought by their customers.

Station bakeries that belong to a chain are accordingly not exempt from the reuse requirement, since both of the above criteria must apply for an exemption from the reuse requirement. Thus, stores with a size of less than 80 square meters must comply with the reusable obligation if they have more than 5 employees.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of mandatory reuse?

The obligation to use reusable containers in the catering industry promotes the debate on waste avoidance and also raises awareness among customers. This can also lead to waste reduction in other areas. However, the prerequisite is that the mehrway containers are actually returned by the guests. To this end, the catering industry should introduce appropriate incentive systems (including a deposit system) that go hand in hand with an expense that is acceptable to customers.

And exactly from this results first of all an enormous logistic problem for gastronomy which has to face the following questions:

  • Which reusable system is the right one for the restaurateur?
  • What are the consequences of non-compliance with the reusable obligation?
  • What hygiene regulations must be observed when issuing and returning food?
  • Establishment of a deposit system – Is it allowed to collect deposits?
  • How is the deposit accounted for?
  • What to look for when buying reusable tableware?
  • How do I select the appropriate reusable containers?

Consumers also need to clarify where they can return the borrowed dishes. Does a restaurant or snack bar use an island, compound or pool system?

In addition, there are first of all the acquisition costs for the reusable tableware for you. You also have to worry about storage space, changing filling and return procedures, and training your employees. The latter is partly offered and/or co-financed by municipalities. Additional costs may result from the purchase of infrastructure to ensure hygienic replacement and non-contact filling of reusable containers (including return baskets, jugs, ladles).

However, these additional costs can be compensated for by increased customer loyalty. Because environmental protection is supported by consumers. In addition, they may have to return to your restaurant or café to return the dishes and will order again right away. Furthermore, every catering business that puts reusable packaging on the market as standard automatically reduces its share of packaging that is subject to system participation.

How restaurateurs implement the packaging law

Two fundamentally different approaches have been implemented so far for reusable solutions for takeaway food and beverages:

  1. Gastronomists fill containers brought by customers
  2. Food and beverages are placed in reusable containers provided by the food service establishment, which are returned by guests after use.

In the second solution (provision of reusable containers by the catering company), three basic systems are currently in place:

  • Island system: the catering company uses its own reusable containers
  • Interconnected system: several catering businesses from the surrounding area join forces and use reusable containers from a jointly purchased and operated stock
  • Pool system: the reusable containers are provided by a service provider in a pool system

The systems have the following features:

Island system

  • Owner of the reusable tableware: catering company
  • Costs:Acquisition costs; costs for cleaning
  • Return motivation with guests: most establishments charge a deposit that is returned upon return. Businesses with predominantly regular customers also leave their reusable containers to some extent on a basis of trust.
  • Take-back: exclusively in the issuing catering establishment
  • Cleaning: in the issuing company in compliance with hygiene rules
  • Distribution: use of a wide variety of reusable containers

Composite system

  • Owners of the reusable tableware: catering businesses that operate the local reusable system.
  • Cost:pro rata acquisition cost and/or flat membership fee or charge per use; cost of cleaning.
  • Return motivation among guests: establishments charge a deposit that is returned upon return.
  • Take-back: at all participating catering establishments
  • Cleaning: in the receiving company or shared scullery in compliance with hygiene rules; external service providers.
  • Dissemination: so far first considerations, for example in market halls

Pool system

  • Owner of the reusable tableware: pool system operator who provides reusable containers; some operators provide support for organizational handling of drop-off and take-back
  • Costs: fee per use and/or flat-rate membership fee to pool system operator; cleaning costs (direct or via fee for external service provider)
  • Return motivation for guests: customers pay a deposit that is returned upon return, or their data is linked to issued tableware via QR code and the respective customer account is debited if the tableware is not returned
  • Take-back: at all catering establishments participating in the pool system
  • Cleaning: in the receiving establishments in compliance with hygiene rules; external service providers contracted by the pool system.
  • Distribution: now a number of providers used by catering businesses and isolated delivery services. One of these companies is DishCircle

Reusable systems in comparison

For the implementation of the reusable obligation for take-away food or to-go beverages, there are basically three options available, each with advantages and disadvantages:

  • Introduction of an island system (purchase of own reusable containers): Advantages:free choice of material and design, individual adaptation to corporate identity possible; Disadvantages:risk of shrinkage due to non-returned containers, requiring additional purchases; returnable containers can only be dispensed at your site.
  • Participation in a pool system: Advantages: Guests can return bins at many locations, bins are sometimes replenished when they run low Disadvantages: monthly basic fees or pay-per-use, possibly no adaptation to corporate identity possible or only at additional cost
  • Interconnected system: Advantages: Choice of material and design only needs to be coordinated with local food service operators; shared acquisition costs; multiple return points Disadvantages: no adaptation to corporate identity, only to identity of shared location.

If you are obliged to implement the reusable obligation, you must weigh up which solution makes sense for you. The following questions may be helpful:

  • What is the risk and cost if the reusable containers are not returned?
  • What is the effort and cost of deposit issuance and return, especially if you also have to take back dishes that have been issued by other vendors?
  • What do the reusable containers provided look like? What material is used? Do they match your corporate identity?
  • Are starter or sample sets offered for trial?
  • What does your customer base look like? Do you have repeat customers or more walk-in customers?
  • Is the returnable system easy for your customers to understand?
  • What marketing benefits can you realize with which reusable system?

Provider with app

Of course, digitization does not stop at reusable systems. Pool system providers in particular, such as DishCircle, offer an app for handling dish return as part of their system. To do this, your guests need to log in to the company-specific app and create an account. Via this app, when an order is placed or a QR code is scanned at the time of purchase, the customer’s account is linked to the container data and a deposit is collected. This will either be collected directly and refunded upon return or collected from the customer’s account if no return is made.

In addition, some reusable tableware suppliers also offer app solutions for handling returns (e.g. DishCircle).

Purchase solution

If you decide to buy your reusable containers, you do have to collect the deposit yourself. However, can set your own rules. DishCircle offers the high-quality reusable tableware for purchase in the webshop.

Why is there a new reusable food law for restaurateurs?

Whether it’s pizza, sushi, salads, pasta or fries – almost any dish can be taken away as a takeaway or to go today. It’s convenient, and time-saving out-of-home consumption is on the rise.

What is also growing steadily, however, are the mountains of waste from disposable packaging. According to Deutsche Umwelthilfe, 320,000 coffee to go cups are consumed every hour in Germany. These are often only in use for a few minutes, but their consumption of energy and resources places a lasting burden on the environment and climate. To counteract this trend, the legislator is introducing mandatory reusability for restaurateurs with the Packaging Act from 2023.

Disposable packaging waste in Germany

In Germany, 770 tons of waste are generated every day due to disposable tableware and takeaway packaging. Snack bars and system caterers each account for one-third of this disposable and packaging waste.

This packaging waste is not only bad for the environment, but also makes for dirty parks and overflowing trash cans in the streetscape of many cities. Packaging for short consumption is currently responsible for a total of 40 percent of street waste. For the municipalities and local authorities, this results in cleaning and disposal costs of 720 million euros per year. Trend rising!

The recycling problem

And what about recycling, you may be wondering. After all, the packaging waste is processed for reuse via recycling, thus conserving resources and the environment. That is true, but unfortunately only partially.

According to the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV), only 46 percent of plastic packaging is currently recycled in Germany. This is partly due to the fact that the production of new plastic is less cost-intensive compared to recycling. This is because most disposable packaging consists of several fine layers that are difficult to separate and thus recycle. In addition, food residues make reprocessing more difficult. For example, only 15.6 percent of the 5.2 million metric tons of plastic waste produced by end users each year ends up as so-called recyclate in the recycling process.

Therefore, it is cheaper to simply dispose of old plastic in landfills or incinerate it and produce new plastic. In addition, an above-average amount of German plastic waste is shipped abroad – primarily to South and Southeast Asia – to be incinerated or landfilled. And this is done with completely inadequate environmental standards that harm the local environment and population. This contradicts consistent sustainability.

Packaging made of brown paper and cardboard is also unsuitable for takeaway and to go areas. Although these can be recycled well, which is also reflected in the high recycling rate (80%). However, the materials are not leak-proof and soften easily. Therefore, composites made of paper and plastic or aluminum are used here, which in turn are problematic. This is because the materials used cannot be cleanly separated without further ado and therefore cannot generally be returned to the material cycle. In addition, a large proportion of consumers dispose of composite materials along with other recyclable plastics, which then have to be sorted out again. This leads to additional costs and makes the recycling process more expensive. Even so-called “recyclable” packaging can only be reprocessed if the respective waste management industry is technically capable of doing so.

Legislators are accordingly faced with the task of developing sustainable solutions to increase recycling rates. An even better way, however, is to minimize packaging and disposable waste. And a very effective option here is the introduction of reusable systems that only need to be disposed of and recycled after a long period of use.

And reusable systems not only relieve the burden on municipal budgets, but are also well received by customers and thus promote customer loyalty. According to a survey commissioned by the Federation of German Consumer Organizations, 96 percent of consumers rate minimizing packaging waste as important to very important, 57 percent are even in favor of a ban in the takeaway and to-go sector, and 55 percent are in favor of introducing reusable deposit systems. Restaurateurs who make the switch early can therefore secure a competitive advantage by boosting their image.

What are the consequences of non-compliance with the packaging law for the catering industry?

If you fail to comply with the legally required reusable packaging, you could face severe penalties. Since it is assumed that the implementation of the new obligations is associated with higher effort and additional costs, the legislator interprets non-compliance as a competitive advantage over competitors operating in the same market and provides for corresponding penalties.

Therefore, violations may result in both administrative and civil prosecution. Fines imposed under these can be up to 100,000 euros. In addition, your competitors and authorized associations and chambers of commerce may claim the following:

  • Cease and desist from future sales of the affected products
  • under certain circumstances, information on the scope and recipients of sales realized up to that time
  • Damages

For this purpose, violations must be reported to the packaging register as well as to the respective competent authority of the federal state concerned. They must then check whether the restaurateur in question is implementing the legally required reusable containers.

Reusable packaging - costs for the end consumer: deposit allowed?

According to the law, the reusable alternatives offered must not be more expensive for customers than the disposable containers provided for the same product. Accordingly, to implement the law, it is not enough to simply offer the reusable alternatives for purchase. Only a deposit may be charged, which must be returned to the customer upon return. In addition, suitable reusable containers must be kept on hand for all sizes of to-go beverages sold by the supplier.

You may accept reusable containers brought in by customers. However, this does not exempt you from the obligation. They must nevertheless maintain a reusable solution in addition to the disposable one.

All requirements at a glance

  • Food and beverages provided in reusable packaging must not be more expensive.
  • Food and beverages held in disposable packaging may not be subject to discounts or other benefits.
  • You may charge a deposit on reusable packaging.

Hygiene regulations for reusable tableware

As a food provider, you are required by law to ensure the safety of the food and beverages you offer until they are served to your customers. To do this, you must ensure hygienically flawless processes within your operation to keep the risk of contamination as low as possible. This also applies to reusable containers from pool, composite and deposit systems, in particular for processes such as return, cleaning, storage and re-provision. Reusable containers rinsed in compliance with hygiene rules can be filled and handed out to your guests just like your own (disposable) tableware, provided they are in perfect condition and undamaged.

Tips for the acceptance of reusable containers

  • When accepting returnable containers, check that they are empty and intact. The empties have been outside your area of responsibility for an unknown period of time and you also do not know the actual last contents. Accordingly, you must take special care with returned empties to rule out contamination of your operating environment. Establish an operation description that specifies the entire process from retrieval, storage to cleaning and dispensing.
  • Store reusable containers with dried-on food waste separately and sort out defective ones. These are sent for recycling either via the pool or interconnected system or on their own. Obviously heavily soiled empties and containers with dried-on food residues may have to be subjected to separate pre-cleaning.
  • Your personnel should clean their hands after hand contact with the containers. In general, however, manual contact (e.g. by wearing gloves) should be avoided. Alternatively, it can also ask your customers to place the closed containers in a defined area (tray, collection basket) after the visual inspection. This area must be cleaned regularly and in case of obvious contamination. With the help of collection containers, your staff can transport the empties to the rinsing area.
  • You can clean reusable containers together with your company-owned dishes in dishwashers. The same hygiene requirements for cleaning in dishwashers apply to these as to your own dishes. Then have them stacked clean, dry and with cover.
  • Have a visual and odor inspection performed when new or cleaned reusable containers are delivered (including pool systems with cleaning service).
  • Train and instruct your staff on hygiene issues surrounding the use of reusable containers. Ensure clear communication of company hygiene rules (including written rules of procedure).

Are self-brought containers allowed?

Offers to fill customers’ own reusable containers for takeaway food or to-go drinks are generally permitted. You can decide for yourself, as part of an individual risk assessment, which foods and beverages to include or exclude from this offer.


If customer-owned containers are sound and undamaged, they do not pose a risk to contaminate your facility or the food and beverages you offer. However, if they are visibly dirty, you can and should refuse to fill them to avoid contamination.

How should the restaurateur react when returning packaging that is not clean?

Since the reusable container requirement is very popular with customers, you can generally assume that they will support you and make an effort to handle the reusable containers provided in a hygienic manner. However, unlike customer-owned dishes, they are not required to do so.

As a precaution, you should refuse to accept empties that are moldy or have been visibly misused. If acceptance has nevertheless taken place, you should discharge this from the reusable cycle. This is because spoiled food scraps or mold spores are potential sources of germs and contamination.

How is the deposit accounted for in the case of a reusable tableware purchase solution

If you choose to purchase your reusable containers, you can decide whether and how to charge a deposit. For example, if you mainly have a steady customer base, you can give out your reusable tableware without a deposit on a trust basis. In the case of walk-in customers, on the other hand, a deposit is generally recommended as an incentive system for returning dishes, which at least covers the purchase costs. This way, if your dishes are not returned, you will not make a loss. On the one hand, you can charge yourself a deposit with each order and pay it back when you return it. On the other hand, you can also use digital solutions such as apps (from DishCircle, among others) or loyalty cards. These link the data of your guests with that of the containers. The customer’s account will be debited with the deposit if the returnable containers are not returned, or the paid deposit will be credited back after the return. In addition, you can also introduce deposit tokens that your customers purchase. Your guests will hand these in when they purchase reusable packaging and receive them back as soon as they are returned.

Buying reusable tableware - What to look for?

When purchasing your reusable container, make sure that it meets certain minimum requirements. According to a survey of restaurateurs, these include in particular:

  • Food safe (glass fork symbol)
  • Taste and odor neutrality
  • good sealability and leakage resistance
  • Heat resistance (hot food and drinks)
  • easy cleaning
  • Gastro dishwasher compatibility
  • Stackability
  • Robustness (scratch resistance and shatter resistance)

In addition, you should choose reusable containers that are microwave safe and freezer safe. For certain dishes you need to consider additional requirements. These include thermal insulation, dividers and separators, and filling lines (for soups, among other things). Furthermore, you should order a sample set to test the products extensively for your use.

Food certified

The requirements for food safety are regulated by law via Regulations (EC) No. 1935/2004 and (EU) No. 10/2011. A fundamental requirement is that the components of containers intended for food – i.e. including reusable containers – must not endanger human health or alter the food they contain. In addition, tastelessness is one of the primary criteria (DIN 10955 tested). Other parameters include heat resistance, hygienic cleaning and drying, and robustness. All legal requirements are met if the reusable containers are marked with the glass fork symbol.

No discoloration of the containers

According to a study by the “Klimaschutz is(s)t Mehrweg” project, customers want food and beverages served via reusable containers to look attractive. This desire is contradicted by discolored containers. To make reusable tableware attractive to customers, you should make sure that the tableware you use does not discolor with use.

Dishwasher safe, freezer safe and microwave safe

To be suitable for the food service industry, reusable containers must also be gastro-dishwasher safe, freezer safe and microwave safe. You should pay particular attention to the rating “dishwasher safe”, as otherwise hygienic cleaning is not feasible.

Stackable

To ensure that the tableware can be stored easily, takes up little space in the catering business and accordingly involves little organizational effort, it must be stackable.

Leak proof and transparent lid

To protect your customers, your reusable containers should be leak-proof. A transparent lid also makes it easier for them to check which food and beverages have been filled.

Recycling

In addition, you should ensure that the reusable tableware is as durable as possible and can be reused and recycled many times over, taking environmental and climate protection into account. In this regard, high quality recycling is desirable, allowing reuse for food contact. The Federal Environment Agency recommends at least 10, preferably 50 uses per jar. The tableware offered by DishCircle is suitable for 500 uses. In addition, we have developed a closed-loop system in which the “used-up” containers are fully recycled and reprocessed into new ones.

Quality: BPA free, usage indication and filling lines

Bisphenol A (BPA) is used in the manufacture of plastics for food and beverage packaging. BPA is classified as “of very high concern” due to its hormone activity, which is why the limits for BPA are continuously being lowered. Moreover, this classification was confirmed by the ECJ in December 2021. Take the precaution of using BPA-free reusable containers to protect your customers.

In addition, high-quality reusable tableware also includes usage information and filling lines. These make it easier for you to use them and reduce your organizational workload.

Sample set available for order

To convince yourself of the quality of the reusable containers, it makes sense to order a sample set before placing a bulk order. We at DishCircle also offer our customers a sample set. This consists of:

  • 1x hamburger box
  • 1x menu plate with lid
  • 1x rectangular meal tray with lid
  • 1x round bowl with lid
  • 1x soup cup

You will find that you are always on the safe side with our products, as we have already taken into account the specific requirements of the catering industry as well as all quality requirements when developing our tableware.

Select suitable reusable variant

DishCircle offers you two reusable options to implement the reusable obligation: the purchase solution or the DishCircle reusable deposit system:

DishCircle Purchase Solution:

  • You buy your reusable containers and cups (standard or desired color) from us.
  • You simply sell your takeaway food or drinks in environmentally friendly reusable cups and containers and charge a deposit. We recommend 5 EUR for containers and 1 EUR for cups.
  • Your customers return the borrowed dishes pre-cleaned, get the deposit refunded or place a new takeaway order.

With this solution, you are independent and determine the rules yourself depending on your and your customers’ wishes.

DishCircle returnable deposit system

  • You buy your reusable tableware from us. These each contain a QR code.
  • Your customers register with our DishCircle app.
  • After filling, your guests scan the QR code on the containers and digitally deposit 5 EUR.
  • When returning the containers, your guests will receive the deposit back – either via a deposit machine or directly at the service point.

Cashless processing of the deposit reduces your organizational workload. In addition, if you have a large site or too few staff to handle deposits, we can provide a backbox to take back the returnable containers – preferably placed in a central location. You only pay for the use and we provide you with the reusable dishes.

Reusable tableware from DishCircle

Reusable meal tray

Our DishCircle menu tray is perfect for takeaway menus and multi-piece dining. It has a large chamber for the main course and a small chamber for side dishes and sauces.

Features:

  • Dimension: Length: 23.0 cm; Width: 12.0 cm; Height: 4.7 cm
  • Volume: 1250 ml
  • 2/3 to 1/3 split shell
  • Connecting groove that seals the DishCircle menu tray to prevent leakage

Reusable menu plate

Our round menu plate is especially suitable for main dishes and buffets. It is available with standard or high lid.

Features:

  • Dimension: Ø 26 cm; height: 3.5 cm
  • Volume: approx. 800 ml with flat lid, 1200 ml with high lid
  • with steam venting
  • heatable in ovens up to 125°C

Reusable bowl

Our round bowl is your handy reusable all-rounder and is suitable for any bowl dish such as pasta and rice dishes as well as salads.

Features:

  • Dimension: Ø 18 cm; Height: 7 cm
  • Volume: 1250 ml
  • Filling markings at 500, 750 and 1000 ml
  • Recessed groove for accurate stacking
  • wide sealing lip for leak-proof closing

Reusable hamburger box

The DishCircle hamburger box is suitable for any medium size hamburger as well as side dishes such as fries, nuggets or wedges.

Features:

  • Inner dimension:length/width: 15 cm; height: 10 cm
  • hinged lid with tab for secure closure
  • Air slot to keep food crispy

Reusable soup cup

Our soup cup is suitable for hot dishes such as soups and stews as well as cold dishes such as fruit salads and ice cream.

Features:

  • Dimension: Ø 9,7 cm; Height: 10,5 cm
  • Volume: 480 ml
  • Vent valve
  • Sealing lip for leak-proof closing
  • Recessed groove, which enables precise stacking
  • Bumps in the ground that allow better drainage of the rinse water

Reusable cup

Reusable cups for hot and cold drinks.

200 ml | Ø 8 cm | Height: 10 cm

300 ml | Ø 8,9 cm | Height: 11,5 cm

400 ml | Ø 9 cm | Height: 13.4 cm

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