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The case for a deposit return scheme

23rd October 2017

Plastic bottle on beach

Only 57% of plastic bottles sold in the UK in 2016 were collected for recycling, compared to more than 96% in Denmark. Why the difference? Denmark has a deposit return scheme.

While the UK has taken great strides in protecting the environment, such as introducing the supermarket plastic bag charge and the ban on microbeads, deposit return schemes (DRS) have long been the subject of debate. Already struggling local authorities are concerned that it would negatively affect their income, while environmentalists argue that some form of legislation is wholly necessary to save the planet.

Legislation introduced in October 2015 to charge 5p for plastic bags at shops and supermarkets has proved to be hugely successful, as those in legal roles will be aware. In England, plastic bag usage has dropped by 85% since the charge was introduced. As a result of this positive step for the environment, many campaign groups are urging the government to continue by considering a deposit return scheme. Environment secretary Michael Gove recently spoke out in favour of introducing some form of DRS, however he stressed the need for research in order to choose the best scheme available.

History of deposit return schemes in the UK

Bottle deposits were fairly common in the UK in the 1980s, however they were phased out when plastic bottles and cans were introduced, providing a cheaper alternative. For many years, most British beer was sold in standard quart, pint, half-pint or third-pint bottles either at off-licences or pubs. The standard deposit was 7 pence for a pint bottle and 5p for a half pint. In the absence of legislation, however, and with the dramatic change from pub to supermarket sales, the industry abandoned refillable bottles. Many will also remember the clinking of glass bottles as the milkman arrived at their houses. In 1970, almost 99% of milk was delivered to doors in refillable bottles, according to a report by the BBC. By 2014, with the huge demand for plastic containers and the convenience of being able to purchase milk at supermarkets, the number had dropped to less than 5%.

Fast forward to January 2017, when the government was considering a 10p or 20p refundable deposit on plastic bottles and containers. The idea, put forward by co-leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas, was quashed in February 2017 after the government rejected the proposal citing that they were ‘not impressed’ with a trail deposit scheme in Scotland and that the results were inconclusive. Willie Mackenzie of Greenpeace told the Daily Mail at the time: “We dump 15 million plastic bottles every day with many ending up on our beaches, in landfill, and in the sea. Yet the government says that pilot schemes have produced inconclusive results.

“We know these schemes work. Millions of people in countries including Australia and Canada use deposit schemes, businesses have adapted to them, drinks companies have embraced them and they’ve had a huge effect in reducing the amount of plastic entering the environment.”

Plans for Scotland

Picking up plastic waste from beach

On September 5, 2017, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that a deposit return scheme would be implemented, however no date has been confirmed as yet. Governments in both Scotland and Wales appear to have been more decisive than England, confirming that it is a case of when, not if.

Zero Waste Scotland, an organisation helping businesses, communities and local authorities to reduce waste, will be working closely with the Scottish government to plan a DRS. We caught up with a spokesperson for Zero Waste Scotland to find out more about how a deposit return scheme could be introduced into Scottish law:

“The Scottish Government’s legal team will be leading on this. Zero Waste Scotland’s role is concerned with the design of a scheme for Scotland, which will be subject to consultation. There is already a provision with primary legislation which could be used to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme in Scotland, via the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. If that approach was to be used to bring the scheme into force, the Scottish Parliament would be required to approve a regulation to do so.

“Issues around what range of containers and businesses would be included in the scheme, as well as any potential penalties for non-compliance with the scheme, will form part of the design work around the scheme as a whole.”

Many countries have been running deposit return schemes for years. We asked Zero Waste Scotland about their effectiveness: “Deposit return schemes around the world have been very successful,” said the spokesperson. “Some overseas schemes reach more than 90% recycling levels for targeted containers, with very high quality of collected materials. Zero Waste Scotland is working to propose an option that suits Scotland’s specific circumstances and requirements.”

How does a DRS work?

Bottle deposit return machine

An easy way to think of bottle deposit return schemes is that consumers would only be ‘borrowing’ the bottle, rather than buying it. Customers could purchase a drink in a plastic bottle, then pay a small deposit on top of the drink, which is refundable once the empty bottle is returned. The bottle can then be recycled at supermarkets, working in a similar way to cash sorting machines. You deposit your bottle into the machine (often referred to as a reverse vending machine) and in return, you receive cash or a supermarket voucher. Some versions of the scheme even give consumers the opportunity to donate their returned pennies to a charity of their choice.

These schemes ensure that bottles are sorted into different types of plastic and keeps them in good condition, making them a more valuable material for companies seeking to buy whole bottles to refill or older plastic to create new bottles.

What about kerbside recycling?

Success in other countries has no doubt encouraged UK governments to consider a similar policy, but previous attempts have been supressed partly due to fears over cost. However, a new report suggests that a DRS could actually save councils £35m a year. The report was commissioned by Keep Britain Tidy, Marine Conservation Society, Surfers Against Sewage, Campaign to Protect Rural England and Reloop and the research was contacted by environmental research group Eunomia. It found that while some local authorities are concerned that they’d lose money, as people would use the scheme rather than recycle through their kerbside systems, this would not be the case.

According to the research, councils could make savings of between £60,000 and £500,000 each year due to ‘reduced littering and landfill charges’ as well as having fewer recycling bins to process. Speaking to The Guardian, Allison Ogden-Newton, chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy, said: “There is no doubt that introducing a deposit refund system would reduce littering in this country but, until now, there has been a concern that it would have a negative impact on cash-strapped councils. This report shows that in fact a DRS would create savings for local government.”

Samantha Harding of the Campaign to Protect Rural England went on to say that there are “no longer any valid arguments” that deposit return schemes do not work and the environmental case is “crystal clear”.

Campaigners are now eagerly waiting for England, Wales and Scotland to take the next step. In the meantime, those in or seeking legal jobs across the UK will be waiting to see what will become of existing environmental legislation after Brexit.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons