Will Scotland's deposit return scheme be a success?

Written by: Matt Clay | Published:
Zero Waste Scotland estimates the scheme will save £3 - 6 million on litter clearance alone

Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed she will introduce a deposit return scheme to reduce litter and increase recycling. Successful in countries such as Norway, could it work in Scotland?

Certain topics are divisive. Take US President Donald Trump’s election promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico, or the love or hate of a certain yeast extract food spread. Yet few would have foreseen news from Scotland to develop a deposit return scheme (DRS) to be so disruptive.

In early September, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that Scotland would introduced a DRS for drinks containers. As part of its master plan – A nation with ambition: The Government’s programme for Scotland 2017-2018 – it said the scheme “represents a step change in our level of ambition” and that it would help end a throwaway culture.

Estimates from Zero Waste Scotland, which will co-ordinate work to design the system, suggest the scheme could save local authorities between £3m and £6m on litter clearance alone.

“By attaching a value to things we think of as waste, a deposit return scheme follows on from the hugely successful carrier bag charge, and will help reduce litter as well as increasing recycling,” says Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland’s chief executive. “These measures could be a real game-changer for a zero-waste society."

Looking to Europe

As part of its consultation, Zero Waste Scotland reviewed schemes in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, which claims to have one of the most successful in the world. In the latter, it is claimed that around 96% of plastic bottles are returned by consumers for recycling.

For a standard 500ml drinks bottle, a deposit of 1 Norwegian kroner (about 10p), and 2.5 kroner (25p) for larger bottles, is added to the price. When the consumer returns the empty container to the store, they get the deposit back.

The idea is to attach a value to empty cans and bottles. People will then, in theory, think twice before throwing away an item that is worth something.

Paul Vanston, chief executive of the Industry Council for research on Packaging & the Environment (INCPEN), believes the next stages are the most important for the scheme’s success.

Speaking to RWW, he says: “The First Minister has laid out the political will for Scotland on deposit return systems, which means we now enter a crucial stage. It’s extremely important the views of many, including local government, the Scottish Grocers Federation, the Association of Convenience Stores, larger retailers and brands are listened to very carefully.

"As we all know, an implementation stage can carry significant risks, which means even the best-intended government policies need substantial work across supply chains to deliver results in practice.”

Others have been less diplomatic in airing their views.

Writing in The Scotsman, Ewan MacDonald-Russell, head of policy and external affairs at the Scottish Retail Consortium, said a “Scottish deposit return system would make the cost of grocery shopping in Scotland more expensive than elsewhere in the UK.

“That money is at the heart of how such a scheme is funded. It comes from consumers, ordinary families who are already seeing their incomes hit by rising inflation and other costs. It’s those struggling workers who will be worst hit by this bottle tax.”

Greenpeace UK expectedly welcomed the confirmation of a deposit return scheme, citing the “staggering” 16 million plastic bottles that end up in the environment every day.

“With businesses and an overwhelming majority of the public in favour of deposit schemes, the Scottish Government now has a mandate to implement as robust a system as possible to help reduce plastic pollution,” says Willie Mackenzie, oceans expert at Greenpeace UK.Hopefully it won’t be too long before the rest of the UK follows suit.”

Lessons from the past

Interestingly, a Greenpeace investigation into Coca-Cola found the company had originally been against deposit return schemes on the grounds of increased costs and logistics, before doing a U-turn.

In an update, Coca-Cola claims to have spoken to its consumers to “understand their views on the scheme”. Two-thirds (63%) support the introduction of a DRS in the UK, with half (51%) saying they’d be “more likely to recycle as a result”.

“A well-designed DRS, targeting the littering of on-the-go soft drinks, could have a role to play alongside reforms and improvements for the current systems,” says Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners. “We’ve been involved with the design and running of DRS systems around the world, so we’ve seen the positive impact they can have.”

Brown adds: “It’s clear that we need to try something different to tackle litter and boost recycling rates, but any new solution needs to work without affecting the existing household recycling system.”

Other drinks companies already have experience in the region with such initiatives. Irn Bru maker AG Barr introduced bottle returns in 1905. Consumers of “Scotland’s other national drink” have been bringing their bottles back in droves for up to 30p each time over the years.

Although a 90% return rate was reached in the early 1990s, this dropped to 50% in 2015. Together with an investment in facilities to fill bottles quicker, it forced the company to scrap its legendary buyback scheme.

Scope for fraud

In its response to Zero Waste Scotland’s consultation, AG Barr did not pull any punches on the potential to introduce a wider deposit return scheme.

“The scope for fraud in a Scottish DRS is huge,” it said. “On a small scale we could see people scavenging in bins for containers, as is the US experience. On a medium scale there is the potential for local authority amenity centre looting.

And on a larger scale there is the very real possibility of cross-border trafficking of deposit-bearing containers. It costs around £400 to move a lorryload of cans from England to Scotland. A single lorry could carry 160,000 crushed cans or £32,000 worth of deposits.”

A spokesperson for AG Barr tells RWW: “We have been actively involved in the debate on how best to address packaging waste and have previously highlighted the potential pitfalls and unintended consequences of a deposit return scheme, particularly the impracticalities of a system that is not applicable across the whole of the UK.”

Back in 2012-2013, Zero Waste Scotland piloted “recycle and reward” schemes in a number of “localised contexts across Scotland”. Two of these schemes had a deposit element.

“These pilots provided useful insight into site-specific recycling solutions, and some of the technical requirements of operating automated takeback machines at site level,” said Zero Waste Scotland. “However, these context-specific local solutions do not provide direct insight into the likely performance of a national deposit return scheme.”

In its ‘Deposit Return Evidence Summary’ document released in June, the organisation also said that deposit systems would provide high-quality, very low-contamination material streams, without further treatment.

When operating properly, the takeback point (whether machine or manual) “rejects contamination at source, unlike any existing systems”. Errors are still possible, Zero Waste Scotland added, but are likely to be a tiny proportion of the overall material flow, especially if clear product labelling facilitates accuracy in manual takeback contexts.

Meanwhile, Britvic Soft Drinks also opposed a DRS in its consultation feedback, saying such a scheme would “undermine kerbside collections”.

The company said: “We recognise that in some small-scale scenarios, such as festivals, deposit return systems can be an effective way of reducing litter and improving recycling rates. However, we do not believe such a system is the solution for Scotland.”

Britvic said, as part of the scheme, the average cost of a soft drink would go up from 65p to almost £1, with only 20p of that increase refunded to the consumer. “The remainder would be from additional costs passed on to the consumer.”

The announcement in Scotland has clearly opened a can of worms about whether a deposit return scheme would work. Many questions remain, particularly on how it would impact household waste recycling efforts, as well as how small retailers would handle the logistics of storing empty recyclables.

With a deposit return scheme also mentioned in Defra’s Litter Strategy earlier this year, Scotland will be a proving ground for whether there is appetite among the public for such initiatives across the wider UK.


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