Sturgeon commits to Scottish deposit-return scheme

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has committed the Scottish Government to introducing a deposit-return scheme (DRS) across Scotland in the next year.

Sturgeon set to commit to Scottish DRS – reports The announcement was made as the programme for the Scottish Government for 2017/18, 'A Nation With Ambition', was published yesterday (5 September). The document says that a DRS 'represents a step change in our level of ambition' in increasing recycling rates and reducing littering.

No details of the potential scheme are set out in the document, but Sky News, reporting before the programme was published, reported that glass bottles and aluminium cans will be included in the scheme, as well as plastic bottles.

DRSs work by charging a small extra charge on top of a product’s fee, much like the five-pence carrier bag charge, but enable shoppers to recoup this charge when the product is returned to a retailer directly for recycling.

Shoppers would be able to use reverse vending machines on the sites of retailers which take products, read bar codes, crush them ready for collection by reprocessors and automatically return the deposit to the user through a credit note.

It is hoped that by attaching a value to plastic products, and it seems glass and aluminium ones, that consumers will be deterred from littering and encouraged to take a more active role in recycling and diverting products from landfill, where there can leak into the environment.

One of the main drivers of public support for such a scheme has come from the fact that as many as 12 tonnes of plastic are estimated to end up in the ocean each year, posing a threat to marine ecosystems and, eventually, human health through contaminated fish and seafood.

Just last month, environmental think tank Green Alliance suggested that five actions including introducing a DRS for plastic bottles (as well as action against plastic nurdles, enforcement of marine dumping bans, upgrading wastewater treatment plants and expanding the UK’s incoming microbead ban) could help reduce marine plastic pollution by up to two thirds.

Sturgeon set to commit to Scottish DRS – reports
Reverse vending machines are already in use on some premises, including Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University
Development of a Scottish DRS

The Scottish Government commissioned Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) to carry out ‘detailed work’ on how a DRS could work in the country in June, and the programme says that 'over the next year we will build on detailed work already being carried out by ZWS, ahead of roll-out across Scotland'.

The introduction of a DRS in Scotland had been a priority of former Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead, though previous ZWS research found that more consideration was needed over a DRS’s feasibility in Scotland. Worries highlighted by opponents to such a scheme include the effect on existing council recycling services, with council officers saying it would damage efficiency and require whole new infrastructure to be developed, the potential to damage small retailers that do not have space to take part in the scheme, and fraud.

In the USA, where only some states have DRSs, there have been many examples of organised crime, with people shipping large loads of containers from states like Arizona to Bottle Bill states like California to redeem them. Opponents suggest that a DRS scheme being started in Scotland could open up similar problems in the north of England.

However, the prospect of some sort of scheme being at least trialled in the country has become more of an inevitability since high profile campaigns by the Daily Mail and Sky’s Ocean Rescue campaign backed the idea.

The campaign got a huge boost in February when Coca-Cola GB renounced its opposition to the idea, which was based on ‘significant unintended risks to [its] business and to Scotland’s wider recycling performance’, and announced that the time is right to trial ‘new interventions such as a well-designed deposit scheme’. 

The Scottish Government's programme states: 'We will ensure the scheme is tailored to meet Scotland’s specific needs and we will work closely with the business community during its design and implementation. The question of whether this scheme should extend to small retailers – who have specific difficulties that would need to be overcome – will be addressed as part of this process.'

As a further measure against the plastic entering the environment, the Scottish Government says it will examine how to reduce demand for single-use items like disposable coffee cups, appointing an expert panel to advise on the use of charges, with the goal of encouraging long-term and sustainable changes in consumer behaviour. 

The full 'A Nation With Ambition: The Government's Programme for Scotland 2017/18' is available to read and download at the Scottish Government's website.

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