Scottish deposit return scheme under pressure: Will it be delayed?

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Despite registration having closed for Scottish producers included in its Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), doubts about the scheme are still being raised.

Deposit return scheme plastic bottlesWith Nicola Sturgeon – one of the scheme's greatest advocates – now stepping down from her role as Scottish first minister, several high-profile individuals are joining calls for it to be delayed. So far, the SNP is largely adopting a business-as-usual attitude, with circular economy minister Lorna Slater tweeting about the imminent launch of the scheme.

The implementation of the deposit return scheme is still planned for 16 August of this year.

The timeline of the Scottish deposit return scheme so far

  • 30 March 2023: After Humza Yousaf is confirmed as Scotland's new first minister, environment secretary Thérèse Coffey says that the government will wait for him to decide if he ‘wants to continue’ with the DRS in its current form. She also states that she believes one, UK-wide scheme is the ‘best outcome’. 
  • 7 March 2023: Slater confirms that while 95 per cent of the packaging is accounted for, only a third of producers are registered for the DRS. Many small businesses are yet to register.
  • 6 March 2023: The formal request for an exemption under the UK Internal Market Act has been sent by the Scottish Government to the UK Government. 
  • 2 March 2023: Slater confirms that Sturgeon has written to Rishi Sunak this week, reiterating the UK Government must exclude the deposit return scheme regulations from the Internal Market Act.
  • 1 March 2023: Glasgow has announced plans to pause the collection of glass in kerbside recycling schemes, citing a £50m funding gap for the next financial year. A council report stated that the DRS is expected to have a ‘fundamental impact’ on the volume of glass collected at the kerbside.
  • 1 March 2023 (continued): Circularity Scotland has said that DRS is ‘on course’, with the producers responsible for 95 per cent of the packaging accounted for in the scheme now registered. Lorna Slater accuses the Secretary of State for Scotland of ‘sabotage’.
  • 28 February 2023: Registration for the DRS in Scotland closes today (28 February). All three candidates for SNP leader have now indicated that they are in favour of pausing the scheme.
  • 27 February 2023: In the House of Lords, the Rt Hon Lord Benyon, Minister of State at Defra, continued the criticism of Scotland’s DRS and joins the Scottish Secretary of State in calling for a UK-wide system. He highlights that the UK Government is yet to receive an official request for the internal market exemption needed to allow the scheme to run legally. The exemption is required to ensure that DRS applies to containers bottled outside of Scotland as, currently, the Internal Market Act would prohibit this – putting Scottish producers at risk. The deadline for the official request is still to be confirmed.
  • 27 February 2023 (continued): Kate Forbes, one of the current hopefuls for Sturgeon’s role, visits Cairngorm Brewery and calls the scheme ‘an example of a good idea badly executed’.
  • 22 February 2023: Circularity Scotland – the private scheme administrator established ​​by the industry to meet DRS obligations – pledges £22 million in support for businesses concerned that their cash flow will be affected by DRS.
  • 15 February 2023: Nicola Sturgeon resigns as Scottish first minister, triggering an SNP leadership race and throwing DRS further into question. She confirms she will remain in the position until her successor is selected.
  • 12 February 2023: Despite Slater and Sturgeon both confirming that DRS is going ahead, the calls for a delay continue. Conservative MP Alister Jack, Secretary of State for Scotland, writes to the Scottish Mail on Sunday, calling for the scheme to be reconsidered until a system ‘that works for the whole UK’ could be designed.
  • 9 February 2023: Speaking at First Minister’s Questions, Fergus Ewing, Inverness and Nairn MSP, calls on Nicola Sturgeon to delay the implementation of DRS. He labels the scheme ‘a disaster’, and pushes for it to be stopped ‘before it becomes a catastrophe’ which damages ‘Scotland’s reputation as a place to do business’. Sturgeon rejects the call for delays, but commits to considering ‘any changes that can sensibly be made’.
  • 9 February 2023 (continued): Slater responds to the drinks industry’s open letter. She comments: “We want businesses to be ready for the scheme going live on 16 August. However, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has agreed that, where there are clearly evidenced operational challenges, they will take a proportionate approach to compliance.”
  • 3 February 2023: The drinks industry pens an open letter to Scottish circular economy minister, Lorna Slater, highlighting the ‘continued lack of clarity on how the scheme will work and the action that small producers need to take to prepare’.
  • January 2023: The UK releases details for the DRS intended for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The plan is criticised by the industry, partly on account of the incompatibility with Scotland’s DRS. Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, the Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, comments that the differences between the schemes are ‘a missed opportunity’.
  • July 2022: Biffa secures a 10-year contract to provide logistics, sorting and counting services for the Scottish DRS.
  • May 2019: The details of the Scottish DRS are announced.

Will Scotland delay its deposit return scheme?

Supporters of the scheme feel that an imminent launch is a necessary starting point and will provide an excellent litmus test for the rest of the UK, possibly informing legislation across the nations. The Scottish Government has also made it clear that it is committed to ironing out issues with DRS.

The results of the request for the exemption to the Internal Markets Act is likely to be a deciding factor, alongside the SNP leadership race.

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