Record beach litter leads to new DRS call

Record beach litter leads to DRS call
Bottle found in Porth Neigwl, Wales
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has called for the introduction of a deposit-return system (DRS) for all ‘single-use drinks containers’ after a record amount of litter was found on beaches last year.

Over 8,000 plastic bottles were found on UK beaches during the weekend of the organisation’s ‘Great British Beach Clean’, where over 6,000 volunteers collected litter from their local beaches, according to report findings published by the MCS today (23 March).

On average, 99 bottles were picked up along every kilometre cleaned, at 340 beaches from Orkney to the Channel Islands. The MCS estimates that plastic bottles could take up to 500 years to break down in the sea. The report reveals a 34 per cent rise in beach litter overall between 2014 and 2015, with 3,298 pieces of litter found per kilometre.

Data in the report is compared across the UK and shows an increase in litter in all countries except Wales. Perhaps most concerning is the rise in beach litter found in Northern Ireland which saw a 307 per cent increase from 2014. England saw a 34 per cent increase, and Scotland a 66 per cent rise in litter found on beaches, MCS reports.

Plastic bottles up by 43 per cent

The report shows that there was a big percentage rise in most drinks containers found on beaches between 2014 and 2015 collections. It reported that the number of plastic drinks bottles increased by over 43 per cent, metal drinks cans by almost 29 per cent, and drinks container caps and lids by over 41 per cent. The number of glass bottles found by MCS collections dropped, but by less than one per cent.

The MCS says that a DRS, which puts a surcharge on drinks containers that is refunded when they are returned for recycling, would ‘give value to items often regarded as having zero worth’ and so would encourage people to dispose of them responsibly.

Have you got the bottle?

In Scotland, MCS is a founding partner of the ‘Have you got the bottle?’ campaign led by the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland (APRS), which aims to bring in legislation for a DRS to Scotland. The Scottish Government has been considering a DRS for over a year, but in December, Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said that more consideration is needed on a number of issues (including particular focus on the retailer costs and implications for small stores under any potential scheme) before a decision can be made.

Calum Duncan, MCS Head of Conservation in Scotland said: “We’re confident that evidence from other countries and a successful trial at Heriot-Watt University shows that a Scotland-wide roll-out of a DRS would lead to reduction in the number of drinks containers that blight our beaches.

“A survey for APRS showed that 78.8 per cent backed a DRS for Scotland. With countries like Germany, where DRS was introduced a decade ago, recycling near to 99 per cent of drinks containers, it’s not difficult to see why support is growing for this proven system.”

The National Assembly for Wales has also discussed the possibility of trialling a DRS system in the country and Gill Bell, the MCS’s Head of Conservation Wales, said: “People in Wales have shown they support environmental initiatives such as the carrier bag charge and general recycling. We think they’ll also get behind a DRS for drinks containers, given the high number of bottles we found on Welsh beaches – 875 bottles from 8.5km of coastline.”

England is ‘hanging fire’

MCS Beachwatch Manager Lauren Eyles said: “Studies have shown that a scheme can reduce the amount of littered drink containers, lead to more recycling and contribute to the circular economy.

“A coordinated UK-wide system would have an even greater impact on litter levels. There’s clearly an appetite for it in Wales and Scotland, but it seems Westminster is hanging fire – just like it did with the single-use carrier bag charge.”

Opposition to DRSs

There is not unanimous support for the introduction of DRSs in the UK, however, with packaging groups leading the opposition. In Scotland, the Packaging Recycling Group Scotland (PRGS) has said that the proposed system for the country ‘‘fails on nearly every practical level and ignores current consumer behaviour”.

The need for deposit systems, they argue, has been hit by increased use of kerbside recycling services and the recent proliferation of online shopping and home deliveries.

Last year, AG Barr, the manufacturer of soft drink Irn Bru, stopped a 30p buyback scheme that it had offered since 1905, explaining that recycling at home had contributed to a drop in bottles being returned from 90 per cent in the early 1990s to only about 50 per cent now.

Writing in Resource in 2013, Jane Bickerstaffe, Director of the Industry Council for research on Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), which has long opposed the introduction of DRSs in the UK, said that DRSs only work in the right circumstances. She 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.”

Find out more about Scotland’s work on DRSs and further arguments for and against deposit-return systems.

The MCS’s full Great British Beach Clean 2015 Report is available on the organisation’s website.