Pandora's bottle: Would a bottle DRS be a game-changer or merely cause more problems?

We've been talking about the possibility of introducing bottle deposit return schemes in the UK for years now, but with Scotland forging ahead, it seems that England might well follow. Cecil Goodbody talks to deposit advocates and opponents

Those of us invested in waste and resources in England often regard goings on north (and west) of the border with a certain degree of envy. The Scottish Government has been forging ahead with plans to make Scotland more sustainable through implementing circular economy principles for years, with local authorities and businesses in England looking wistfully on.

One such initiative that’s long been on the table, is the introduction of a deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles, with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon committing Scotland to introducing a DRS over the course of the next year back in September – a course that appears to be being followed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who launched a call for evidence on a DRS in England in October. With the prospect of a scheme now so close to materialising, debate has begun anew over the feasibility and appropriateness of such a scheme.

Preparing the ground

Scotland has been exploring the introduction of a DRS for some time, with Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) launching a call for evidence on a DRS back in 2015. A DRS is a system that incentivises the return of a product (in this case, a beverage container) to a designated collection point, through the application of a refundable deposit on top of the original retail price, in order to reduce litter and recover materials for recycling or reuse. The deposit is refunded either over the counter or through reverse vending machines that take bottles back and return the deposit.

Pandora's bottle: Would a bottle DRS be a game-changer or merely cause more problems?
Reverse vending machines are one way of returning bottles and reclaiming the deposit

Ideally, according to Dominic Hogg, Chair and Founder of Eunomia Research & Consulting, whose organisation has carried out a raft of feasibility studies on DRSs and backs its introduction, the scheme would be run by a central non-profit organisation that would refund the retailer once it pays out the deposit to the consumer, with beverage manufacturers and importers on the board to ensure that it were run efficiently.

The principal motivation for pushing ahead with a DRS is to reignite Scotland’s recycling rate, currently at 45.2 per cent, while the issue of plastic bottle recycling and litter continues to provoke concern, with only 34 per cent of the 35 million plastic bottles sold every day in Britain being recycled, according to Eunomia’s figures – although ZWS says that a DRS is unlikely to be restricted to plastic containers and should include metal cans and glass bottles.

Public support

Helped perhaps by large exposure campaigns by the Daily Mail and Sky News, the scheme has significant support in Scotland, with 78.8 per cent of the public supporting its introduction, according to a recent Survation poll, while a milestone feasibility report prepared for the Scottish government by Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) and Eunomia in May 2015, paints an optimistic picture for a post-DRS Scotland, modelling that recycling rates for plastic bottles (34 per cent) would allegedly jump to 87 per cent according to low estimates and to 96 per cent according to high estimates, with some £205 million to be saved by local authorities in Scotland in cleaning up litter.

While the exact deposit amount is yet to be decided, it is expected to fall somewhere between 10 and 30 pence, which ZWS Chief Executive Iain Gulland says may not be make-or-break: “You are putting a value on the material. Whether it’s a plastic bottle or a can, people do change their behaviour when confronted with a value.”

While a DRS may be a step into the unknown for policy-makers in Scotland, there are plenty of examples from further afield of functioning DRSs to take heed of. Germany introduced a DRS in 2003 for beer, water, mixed spirits and soft drinks containers. A 25-cent deposit was placed on one-way glass, PET plastic bottles and metal cans, leading to 98.5 per cent collection rates for PET and 96 per cent for aluminium cans, facilitating the removal of between one and two billion one-way containers from Germany’s bins and streets. Meanwhile, in Lithuania, which only introduced a DRS two years ago in 2015, recycling rates jumped from 32 per cent to 75 per cent in the first seven months of operation, providing succor to the proponents of a DRS in Scotland.

No magic bullet

However, despite success elsewhere, concerns have been raised over whether a DRS would be appropriate for Scotland. Reservations are held by those in business and local authorities fearing that a DRS would undermine the existing kerbside system, diverting material away from local authorities who often rely on revenues from the sale of recovered materials and making their waste management schemes too expensive. Speaking at a recent Environmental Audit Committee hearing over the possibility of introducing a DRS across the UK, Lee Marshall, CEO of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), stated that LARAC were “not aware the evidence is there to say there won’t be a negative impact” and their “estimates show there is likely to be one”, with a DRS likely to lead to “savings on the litter picking side, but increased costs on the kerbside”.

There are concerns, too, that it could place extra pressures on businesses through higher prices and having to find space for DRS equipment in retail outlets (a recent survey of 1,210 UK retailers found that 71 per cent thought DRS would be impractical due to spatial limitations). While Hogg asserts that this is a “common kneejerk response”, many have responded that a lot of money and effort has been poured into the kerbside recycling system in the UK, which is far more developed than those in other countries that operate a DRS. Sceptics go on to argue that better informing consumers on how to recycle using the existing system, would be more efficient and cost-effective than implementing a whole new recycling system. As Norman Lett, Regulator Affairs and Recycling Manager at Ball Packaging Europe comments: “The biggest problem is communication.”          

On top of this there is the possible issue of fraud. Certain stakeholders fear that containers could be brought across the border from England and then have their deposit redeemed without actually having paid the deposit in Scotland. Potential solutions have been identified to prevent this happening, though, says Hogg.

“The scheme looks to have Scotland-specific barcodes for the products included in the deposit scheme. So when the containers are returned, either to a reverse vending machine or to a retailer who then sends them to a counting centre, what’s happening is the barcode gets scanned and you only issue the deposits for those containers purchased in Scotland.”

Lett accepts that there are ways to prevent fraud, but warns: “The higher the deposit, the greater the propensity for fraud, the higher the security arrangements have to be”. And the higher the security arrangements have to be, inevitably the higher the cost.

Finally, at least for the scope of this article, there are a number of concerns about the economic incentive of the deposit itself. Zero Waste Scotland and Eunomia’s feasibility report suggests that the higher the deposit, the more returns you will get.

A number of behaviour change experts in the resources industry suggest there are two issues to bear in mind with the economic incentive. Firstly, there is no guarantee that a high deposit will lead to consistently high container take-back. A spokesperson for AG Barr, the soft drinks manufacturing responsible for distributing Irn-Bru in Scotland, told me how the company ended its historic deposit system in 2012, citing a sharp decline in bottle returns to 57 per cent and lower, despite the deposit being increased from 10 to 30 pence per bottle.

This article was taken from Issue 90

Furthermore, there are fears that the use of the economic incentive does not engender the right kind of behaviour change. Lett states: “I don’t think it encourages the right kind of social spirit. People have an obligation, a social obligation, to keep their environment clean, not to drop litter, and to put stuff in recycling bin. You will get an attitude where people say, ‘well, no one’s paying me to recycle’, so they don’t bother. It’s completely the wrong reasons.”

More research needed

Prior to any decision on a DRS in Scotland, as Paul Vanston, CEO of the Industry Council for research on Packaging & the Environment (INCPEN), says, what’s needed now are “detailed impact assessments on all the options that can raise recycling rates generally”. These should include a renewed focus on kerbside collection, but also explore how any ‘on the go’ systems could fit in with the existing system. “Deposit return systems are one type of ‘on the go’ infrastructure the public could use but there are others that warrant serious consideration but which seem drowned out in the public debate,” reminds Vanston.

While the current direction of travel indicates that Scotland is heading for a bottle DRS scheme, with England seemingly set to follow suit, it is clear that there is much work still to do in order to identify what kind of system would be the most appropriate for Scotland, and indeed, whether any kind of DRS scheme would be appropriate for Scotland at all. 

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