Gove launches consultation on English bottle and can deposit return scheme

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has launched a call for evidence on how reward and return schemes for plastic, metal and glass drinks containers could help to tackle England’s littering problem.

Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference yesterday (2 October), Gove launched the call for evidence, which will be open for four weeks, while ministers have asked the Voluntary and Economic Incentives Working Group, set up as part of the UK’s Litter Strategy, to accelerate its work and report back in early 2018.

Organisations and individuals will be asked to share their views with the government on the advantages and disadvantages of different types of return schemes for various drinks containers and whether they could help stem the flow of litter entering the marine environment.

The possibility of an English deposit-return scheme (DRS) follows Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to introducing a similar system across Scotland - something that Zero Waste Scotland is currently investigating.

Gove’s announcement is the latest measure to be considered against marine plastic pollution in the UK, a flashpoint that has caught the attention of the British public. In July the Environment Secretary announced  that the UK will be banning microbeads from cosmetic products from January 2018 to combat the issue of microplastics in the oceans.

In making the announcement, Gove said: “We must protect our oceans and marine life from plastic waste if we are to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. That means tackling the rise in plastic bottles entering our waters by making it simpler and easier to recycle and dispose of them appropriately.

“Today we are launching a call for evidence to help us understand how reward and return schemes for plastic bottles and other drinks containers could work in England. This approach has already seen great success in other countries such as Denmark in curbing plastic pollution and we want to hear people’s ideas on how we could make it work in England.

“This adds to the progress we have already made in cleaning up our oceans by significantly reducing plastic bag use and drawing up one of the world’s toughest bans on plastic microbeads.”

Upon the close of the four-week window for submitting evidence, all submissions will be reviewed by the government’s working group, which contains such brand and retail giants as Tesco and Coca Cola, which earlier this year completely switched its stance on a British DRS, backing a trial in Scotland.

 Gove launches consultation on English bottle and can deposit return scheme
Gove stressed a desire to address waste polluting marine ecosystems in his first speech as Environment Secretary
Direction of travel

Littering and faltering recycling rates for single-use beverage containers have led to the exploration of alternative initiatives and systems to the existing kerbside recycling system in order to recover a higher amount of drinks containers.

In the UK in 2016 just 57 per cent of all beverage containers sold in the UK were collected for recycling, whereas in Denmark, which has a beverage container deposit return scheme for both single-use and reusable containers, 90 per cent of deposit-marked cans and bottles were returned to recycling facilities, though this is a traditional system that was developed alongside the country’s kerbside recycling services.

And even before Gove announced Defra’s decision to explore the options for a return scheme in England, the Scottish government recently committed to introducing such a scheme in Scotland in the next year, while environmental think tank Green Alliance recommended the introduction of a return scheme as one way of tackling marine plastic pollution back in August.

Commenting on Gove’s announcement, Dominic Hogg, Chairman and founder of Eunomia Research & Consulting, which has written and contributed to numerous studies on beverage container deposit schemes, said: “We welcome Michael Gove’s recent announcement regarding his intention to introduce a deposit refund scheme. We believe this will help to increase recycling of beverage containers, reduce the extent of littering – on land and in the sea – by over a million containers per day, and contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Another positive spin-off will be that better-quality material will be collected for recycling, encouraging local processing of the collected materials.

“With Scotland having already announced its intentions in this regard, and Wales and Northern Ireland considering the same, it makes sense now to consider a scheme which works across the UK, or at the very least, across England, Scotland and Wales. The scheme’s design needs to capture the best features of overseas schemes so as to combine efficient scheme delivery with high levels of performance.”

Plenty of opposition

However, not all stakeholders have been so enthusiastic about the possibility of such a scheme being implemented in England, or, indeed, anywhere else in the UK.

Responding to Gove's announcement, Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “It’s disappointing to see the UK Government commit to bringing in a deposit return system for drinks bottles and containers. Whilst superficially appealing, the reality is deposit-return vending will hit customers with an upfront charge, pushing up the cost of living to the tune of tens of millions of pounds at a time when household finances are under strain.

“Unlike many countries with an operational DRS, the UK already benefits from kerbside recycling collections. A DRS in the UK would therefore undermine this existing system, into which taxpayers have invested significant sums. It would also potentially cost retailers hundreds of millions of pounds in implementation costs.

“We are looking to government to take a more progressive and comprehensive approach to waste, recycling and the circular economy, of which plastic bottles are a small component. Decisions on specific products need to be taken in the context of the circular economy where all resources are valued and reused. We are still waiting for Defra’s 25-year environment plan and a waste and resources strategy. Focusing on correcting one small issue distracts retailers and others from agreeing a more comprehensive approach.”

Moreover, the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) has also expressed concern over the implementation of a deposit return scheme due to its potentially negative effects on council recycling efficiency and the need for new collection infrastructure for the system to operate, with responsibility for the capital investment required to implement a swathe of new infrastructure yet to be designated.

The consultation on reward and return schemes for beverage containers can be found on the Defra website.

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