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Defra to reject deposit-return schemes

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Officials from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) have played down the possibility of introducing a deposit-return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles as part of its new litter strategy for England, according to reports yesterday (15 February) in the national press.

The government source, quoted in the Daily Mail, says that officials were unimpressed by the results of a trial scheme in Scotland, and that the proposal is now ‘unlikely’, although ‘not off the table’.

Such a scheme would involve a 10- to 20-pence levy on plastic bottles and containers, which customers would be able to reclaim by bringing them back to stores to be recycled.

A spokesman for Defra told the Mail: “There are no plans for a deposit-return scheme for plastic bottles. We have made great progress in boosting recycling rates and making more products recyclable, but there is still much more to be done. Almost all local authorities now collect plastic bottles as part of their general waste collection services.” The department’s delayed 25-year Environment Plan is expected to be published later this year.

A nation divided

Opinion is divided over the benefit and costs of introducing DRSs, with a wide variety of organisations and individuals weighing in on the debate.

Most recently, Green Party Co-leader Caroline Lucas has demonstrated her support for DRSs, tabling an early-day motion calling for the introduction of a DRS as part of the upcoming national litter strategy. According to Lucas, a DRS would help “dramatically increase the collection rate of plastic bottles and other containers, helping to protect the environment and to save local authorities and taxpayers money”.  

Lucas is one of several voices firmly in the ‘pro’ camp, alongside anti-litter action group Keep Britain Tidy, Greenpeace UK and the Marine Conservation Society, which published a study in March suggesting that the number of plastic bottles found on UK beaches increased by over 43 per cent between 2014 and 2015, prompting a call for the introduction of a DRS.

Schemes on the continent including examples in Norway and Germany, supporters say, have succeeded in achieving recycling rates for target materials in excess of 90 per cent.

'Cannibalising' local collections

On the other side of the argument, however, several groups are saying that DRSs both ‘undermine recycling and fail to prevent litter’.

Jane Bickerstaffe, outgoing Director of INCPEN, the Industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment, writing for Resource in 2013, said: “Putting a deposit on drinks containers would just divert them from the council’s kerbside collection system into a separate collection system. Given the widespread availability of kerbside and bring systems for recycling, it seems unlikely that deposits would increase recycling.” More recently, she argued that a deposit scheme “would be expensive and inconvenient for consumers, undermine local authorities’ recycling services, and disadvantage small shopkeepers”.

Bickerstaffe cites Germany as an example of the failings of DRSs: “We can learn from other countries. When Germany introduced a DRS in 2003 its recycling rate dropped and over 10 years later has still not recovered to the same level. Let’s not make the same mistake.” In Germany, the cost of collection per item through the scheme is three times as high as a kerbside system, according to INCPEN’s ‘Factsheet on Packaging & Deposits’.

In addition, in response to a study by Keep Scotland Beautiful, which found that supermarket carrier bag litter increased by 38 per cent in some areas since February 2014, despite the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge, Bickerstaffe commented: “Two years on from the introduction of the carrier bag charge, the litter problem is as bad as ever. The charge does not appear to influence people who litter. It suggests that more charges and deposits on other items, such as disposable coffee cups and drinks bottles, will not make a difference.”

Following today’s reports, the On-Pack Recycling Label Ltd (OPRL) and the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) both took to Twitter to share their views, suggesting that a DRS would remove focus from kerbside collections, which should remain the focal point of the nation’s recycling efforts.

The British Plastics Federation, following Lucas’s proposal last year, released a statement arguing that the motion did not “fully consider the impacts of introducing a DRS scheme or current research on litter composition”, noting that plastic bottles only account for a small percentage (2.5 per cent) of litter in England, and claiming that evidence from other countries suggests that DRSs are expensive and inconvenient. BPF also warned of penalising customers who already recycle at home.

DRSs in the UK

Although Defra seems to have cooled on the idea of a DRS, devolved governments are still thought to be considering implementing schemes. Scotland is evaluating whether introducing a DRS would be beneficial, with 78 per cent of Scots in favour of such a scheme, according to a poll conducted by the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland. A scheme has already been piloted, though concerns were raised over the expense of setting it up.

Despite the opinion polls suggesting a DRS scheme would be welcome, evidence suggests that in practice people might not be so keen to participate. Scottish company A G Barr plc, the makers of Irn-Bru, stopped a long-running return scheme in 2015 as people weren’t using it enough.

The National Assembly of Wales has also been debating setting up a DRS, with Welsh Conservatives in favour of such a scheme.

Whatever the argument, people on both sides of the debate agree that something needs to be done about plastic waste. With reports indicating that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean, governments and organisations must work together to find a solution fast. The UK government’s national litter strategy is the first of its kind and will see the government working with local authorities, campaign groups and businesses to clean up the country. 

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