Scotland considers implementing drinks deposit scheme

Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) has today (14 May) launched a call for evidence to understand how a cash deposit scheme for drinks bottles and cans could be designed and managed in Scotland.

Scotland considers implementing drinks deposit scheme

The call seeks to identify how a deposit-return scheme (DRS) – which sees customers pay a small cash deposit when purchasing a drink in a can or bottle, which is refunded when the packaging is returned for recycling – could work in practice in Scotland. It is hoped that such a system could boost recycling rates and reduce litter arisings.  

According to ZWS, ‘quantified evidence from reputable independent studies’ is now needed to help the body fully understand the impacts of such a scheme, including how such a system could be managed (i.e. the extent of public, private, and third-sector involvement), as well as any other associated economic, environmental or wider social impacts it could have.

Those with relevant evidence is asked to submit it by email to Lyndsay Parker by 12 p.m. on Thursday, 18 June.

Feasibility study into Scottish deposit-return scheme

The call has been launched in tandem with the release of ZWS’s own feasibility study and report into a potential cash deposit scheme for Scotland.

Undertaken by deposit-refund scheme advocates Eunomia Research & Consulting, the reports look at DRSs already operating in other countries, including Sweden, Germany, Estonia, Australia and Canada, and models what a Scottish system could look like.

However, Eunomia writes that the report is not intended to be used as a cost benefit analysis, or ‘provide an argument as to whether the option is the best one for Scotland, or not’, but instead should be considered alongside two other reports focusing on whether the packaging recovery note (PRN) system, or other mechanisms, could be used to achieve the same aims and objectives of a DRS, and how.

How a DRS could work in practice

Utilising information gathered from a range of stakeholders in the beverage and packaging sectors, Eunomia concluded that there were no ‘critical problems such that a DRS was infeasible’.

It suggested that a Scottish system could have a one-off setup cost of around £15 million and cover any drink product sold in metal cans, PET or HDPE (plastic) bottles, glass bottles, or beverage cartons. However, the consultancy stated that a review of the potential to include a wider range of bottled and canned products should be undertaken before the scope is finalised, to ensure that a DRS, or equivalent measure, is ‘capable of handling most packaging types in which that product is found’.

To avoid confusion for consumers and ‘reduce accounting burdens’, the report states that a ‘small deposit’ between 10 and 20 pence per container for ‘common-sized beverages’ could work. It added that if ‘differentiation by volume is deemed necessary or desirable’ then only a small number of different rates should be used.

In terms of infrastructure, the report identified a ‘return to retail’ take-back model, with both manual or automated take-back systems. Eunomia recommended that ‘opportunities for backhauling [taking empty packaging back to the producer’s factory when making the return journey after delivering products] should be explored as far as possible’ to ‘keep logistics costs down’.

Notably, unlike the German DRS system, where retailers maintain ownership of materials and the associated sales revenue, the report states that a Scottish system should see the ownership of the material and revenue rest with the system (governed through a management board overseen by the Scottish Government), ‘recognising that a range of stakeholders contribute to the performance of the system overall’ and ensuring that the sale and use of materials deliver ‘the best outcome for the Scottish economy’.

The consultancy also suggested that a return rate target should be established ‘so as to ensure that the system does not simply become a source of revenue associated with unclaimed deposits’. It noted that a DRS system could also help save around £7 million from reducing the direct costs of litter.

Other suggestions included:

  • bringing in two labelling options: a Scottish DRS logo and individual barcode for beverages sold in Scotland only (i.e. a Scottish-specific label), and a Scottish DRS logo added to all beverages sold in the UK;
  • implementing centralised take-back facilities for rural and remote areas; and
  • ensuring legislation is flexible to allow for extension of scope, optimisation and innovation.

‘Deposit return has the potential to be very beneficial for the environment’

Releasing the report this afternoon, Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of ZWS, said: “Scotland has set ambitious targets for moving towards zero waste, and we know that many drinks cans and bottles are not currently being recycled and may end up as very visible litter. 

“Deposit-return systems have been used in many other parts of the world to prevent waste and increase recycling. So this new report, which assesses how such a scheme could work in Scotland, is an important contribution to the debate about how we achieve our zero waste goals and move towards a more circular economy.”

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead welcomed the report, adding: “A scheme like the deposit-return [system] has the potential to be very beneficial for the environment – reducing litter and boosting the recycling of these materials and their value. As we have seen with carrier bag charging, attaching a value to something can be very effective in helping us make small but important changes… I am keen to explore the opportunities for Scotland from deposit-return and will be highlighting these studies with my counterparts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to invite them to do likewise.”

Packaging stakeholders oppose DRS

However, stakeholders in the Scottish packaging industry have spoken out against any potential DRS, with the Packaging Recycling Group Scotland (PRGS) stating: “We do not support the introduction of a deposit-return system in Scotland, and recommend alternative proposals to promote recycling, reduce waste and tackle litter, which we believe will be more effective.”

Speaking for the group, Jane Bickerstaffe, Director of the Industry Council for research on Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), added: “There are great examples of recycling in Scotland, including existing kerbside and on-the-go recycling schemes that are already working.

“We need to develop and improve existing initiatives, rather than creating new ones, such as a deposit-return system, which will be more costly for consumers and business, less convenient, address only a small proportion of litter and likely to undermine existing systems. ” 

Read the feasibility study and report into the potential for a cash deposit scheme in Scotland, or find out more about the pros and cons of DRSs.

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