DRS: A whole can of worms

The UK Government has confirmed plans to introduce a deposit return scheme by 2023, and Scotland has pledged to implement its own before then. Rick Hindley, Executive Director of Alupro, the Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation, gets his teeth into the issues surrounding DRS

Rick Hindley, Executive Director of Alupro
Rick Hindley, Executive Director of Alupro
With the first round of the UK Government’s resources and waste consultations completed, and responses from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) now published, we have a once in a generation opportunity to drive recycling performance across the UK. We will either get it right, or get it wrong, and there will be some massive challenges along the way.

Huge changes in policy are being proposed: deposit return schemes (DRS) for beverage containers; an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime for packaging producers; a tax on plastic packaging to encourage the use of recycled content; and a consistent set of materials to be collected at the kerbside, including food waste. It is vital that the government doesn’t jump too quickly in one direction, and I’m not convinced the work has been done to be able to determine what that direction should be.

The real unknown is DRS – what impact will this measure have on the UK’s current recycling performance? Other than Germany, no country has imposed a DRS on top of a kerbside collection system; the task of doing this it shouldn’t be underestimated, as it would require the creation of an organisation with a huge amount of both money and material moving through it.

At the same time, there are proposals for the reform of the packaging producer responsibility system, which is much needed and overdue. But again, this means creating a new organisation and a significant change in the way money flows. These are aspirations which could deliver a massive positive difference, but also the risk to get things very wrong. Implementing both EPR and DRS will involve considerable costs – costs that will ultimately be borne by consumers – so there is a responsibility to ensure that the results fulfil all the objectives.

Moving ahead: Scotland’s DRS proposal

The Scottish Government has set a timescale of 2021 to implement a DRS in Scotland, separate to the rest of the UK; plans for its proposed DRS model were unveiled in May, with a 20 pence deposit on drinks containers made from aluminium, steel, glass and PET plastics.

Zero Waste Scotland has said that the proposed flat 20 pence deposit across all packaging formats of any size and any materials will be the simplest option for consumers. This is concerning for two reasons: firstly, the size of the deposit is double what is typically seen in Scandinavian deposit schemes (the models that the Scottish Government has been studying). Secondly, this deposit is the same across all materials and packaging sizes; this is particularly worrying in relation to multi-pack cans.

In the UK, around 80 per cent of all drink cans are sold in multi-packs. If a 20 pence deposit is placed on every unit in a 24-can multi-pack of Coke, for instance, that adds an additional £4.80 onto the purchase price of that multi-pack. You could argue that the consumer is going to get that money back, but the reality is that the price on the label will impact consumer choices. And when faced with a cheaper alternative, such as buying four 1.5 litre PET bottles with a total deposit of 80 pence, the choice seems obvious, leading to an increase in the amount of single-use plastic.

Aluminium at risk

We recently commissioned a survey of Scottish consumers to ask them about this issue; based on a deposit of 20 pence, 22 per cent of them told us that they would switch to large format PET bottles.

In its proposed format, this DRS could negatively impact drink can sales in Scotland, while increasing the amount of single-use plastic being purchased – at a time when there is a demand to move away from plastics and towards materials like aluminium, which is infinitely recyclable.

In Germany, sales of drinks cans plummeted when a poorly designed DRS was introduced, as consumers moved to plastic and glass; implemented in 2003, drink can sales are only just starting to recover. If the Scottish model was replicated across the UK, the aluminium sector could be adversely affected, potentially leading to plant closures and job losses.

There are other options, such as a deposit system based on the size of the container. Alternatively, if a DRS focused on ‘on-the-go’ items (those purchased for consumption out of the house), multi-pack cans could potentially be excluded from the scheme altogether – though this would be complicated to implement. Ultimately, we need to work with the Scottish Government to set a deposit level that doesn’t discriminate against some materials more than others.

A close-up of aluminium cans

Added costs

A 20 pence deposit could also have big knock-on effects for council recycling services. It has been suggested that local authorities should be able to redeem the deposit of any cans and bottles that end up in the kerbside collection system – but in reality, with a 20 pence DRS system in place, it’s unlikely that those cans and bottles will actually make their way to the local authority in the first place.

In New South Wales, Australia, a DRS was introduced in 2016. They are experiencing huge issues with ‘unofficial’ recyclers, who remove cans, bottles and anything with a deposit on it from kerbside recycling boxes before the lorry comes to collect it, effectively draining the council of a valuable income stream.

If Scotland goes ahead with its DRS separate to the rest of the UK, this could present several additional costs and challenges. Retailers and brands would have to produce different packaging for Scotland, taking into account DRS barcodes, something that has big cost implications for the manufacturer and the consumer. And this also increases the risk of fraud – in Finland, for instance, some cans and bottles coming over the Russian border are given fake barcodes so that they can be redeemed for a deposit that was never paid.

Too much, too fast?

Having spoken to a lot of people who have responded to the government’s resources and waste consultations, many are advocating a focus on EPR and the consistency of collections first and foremost. If these don’t deliver the outcomes that are required, a DRS could then be used to fill in the gaps. There’s almost unified support across all stakeholders for this two-stage process of reform.

However, the political will to introduce a DRS in Scotland is clear. As such, we have to ensure the system is designed to work for everyone. We don’t want a DRS imposed too quickly in response to public pressure around plastic pollution –if the Scottish model is implemented in its current form, it will have the perverse consequence of an increase in the use of single use plastic, rather than a reduction.

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