Is it time for a plastic bottle tax?

Following the success that the UK's plastic bag charge has had on changing consumer behaviours and reducing waste, environmental campaigners and industry experts have this week been discussing the viability of a plastic bottle deposit scheme. Would such a scheme be successful?

England’s plastic bag usage has declined by 85% since the Government introduced a 5p levy on single-use bags in retail outlets. The carrier bag charge represents something of a CSR success story, with retailers now using the profits gained from the charge to boost a number of social development projects.

Researchers suggest that similar policies could now be successfully implemented in Britain, such as a deposit return scheme on plastic bottles, or a charge on disposable coffee cups. But while tangible progress is now being made when it comes to recycling disposable coffee cups, little is being done to incentivise the reduction of single-use plastic bottles.

In fact, reports have suggested that policymakers are actively lobbying against the introduction of deposit schemes for plastic bottles. Any variation of the deposit scheme would place a small surcharge on the purchase of plastic bottles, which can be retained once consumers hand-in the bottles to collection points.

The potential of the deposit scheme was built on studies in Europe which show that the levy could increase recycling rates of the bottles to 98% and has already shown relative success in Germany.

The UK’s ability to cope with the waste caused by plastic bottles, in comparison, has been less impressive. Around 60% of bottles are currently recycled in the UK and industry data shows that bottled-water production has grown from 1,574m litres in 2008 to 2,246m litres in 2015. That equates to around 3.37 plastic bottles per person per week in London alone.

At a meeting of the London Assembly Environment Committee yesterday (22 February), representatives from the Greater London Authority (GLA), WRAP and the #OneLess campaign – which worked with Selfridges in ceasing the sale of plastic bottles in its shops – discussed the viability of a deposit scheme, as well as other solutions.

Murky waters

From the outset of the meeting, it was apparent that there remains a major stumbling block in reducing plastic bottles sales and increasing recycling rates: no one is quite sure of the data.

The adage goes that you “can’t manage what you can’t measure”, yet each representative provided different data sets for the number of plastic water bottles in circulation in the UK and in London. These figures ranged 4.5bn litres of bottled soft drinks to 7.7bn single-use plastic water bottles consumed.

Despite the lack of clarity over the data, those involved in the meeting agreed that a deposit and take-back scheme should, at the very least, be trialled in certain areas of London, to test its viability.

However, much of the discussion revolved around the consumer’s relationship with both bottled water and free tap water, and it is here, according to the GLA, that the first stumbling blocks for a deposit scheme arise.

GLA’s assistant director Patrick Feehily is working with London Mayor Sadiq Khan on the London Environment Strategy, which is set for publication in late Spring this year. While Feehily noted that a deposit scheme was yet to be discussed, he admitted that it could be a viable option, providing that access to water doesn’t drop as a result.

“It comes down to consumer choice, every Londoner has access to tap water, but making it available on the go is an issue,” Feehily said. “People seem to be hooked on buying bottled water and we have to break that connection. We can’t stop selling bottled water if it stops the access to consumption of water for consumers.

“We’ve looked at bottle deposit schemes, and trials on an area basis could work. But if we did a mini-campaign, we’d need to prove that it would lower consumption levels of bottled water. Ideally, we’d get some businesses involved to find out what the impact is, it would help move the agenda forward, but only if it proved things that we haven’t been able to prove recently.”

One of Feehily’s main concerns is that a take-back scheme wouldn’t actually reduce the volume of single-use plastic bottles, and their associated carbon footprints, from circulation. Yesterday, Feehily claimed that the carbon footprint of bottled water is 300-times higher than that of tap water. He also expressed concerns over the recyclability of the products, noting that they can’t be remade into plastic bottles, but are instead broken down into base-material polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to be used in other products.

Associated carbon

Research from the Natural Hydration Council found that the UK bottled water industry accounts for 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. When adding the associated transport emissions – the Council notes that around 25% of the UK’s bottled water is imported – then these figures rise.

The Council’s general manager Kinvara Carey was also present at the meeting, and argued that while attempts to reduce single-use water bottles should be applauded, it shouldn’t lead to consumers purchasing sugary soft drinks as a result. Carey alluded to Defra’s soft drinks sustainability roadmap, which highlights that bottled water accounts for 10% of emissions in this area. This, Carey notes, highlights the needs for plastic bottle waste to be tackled holistically, rather than singling-out water products.

The Government may already be step behind in this movement. As discussions in London continued, news broke that Coca-Cola had performed a U-turn in its opposition against a trial deposit scheme for cans and bottles in Scotland. If trials from the business get approval, consumers could be encouraged to purchase less healthy products, under the assumption that they will do less damage to the environment due to the take-back scheme.  

Holistic solutions

The panel agreed that a deposit scheme wouldn’t single-handedly solve the issues surrounding plastic waste in the ocean, noting that no ‘silver bullet’ exists to completely eradicate the problem. However, the panel did agree that London should champion the movement by introducing an array of initiatives that would support one another in reducing single-use plastic bottles while simultaneously ensuring that the public had access to clean, free tap water.

One such solution presented in the meeting was from HydraChill’s founding director Nick Davis. HydraChill Water Refilling Stations are designed to showcase access to chilled, filtered mains-fed water in ‘on-the-go’ areas such as train stations and is currently being trialled at Hammersmith.

Davis noted that two systems operating at Northumbria University had been used a million times during a five-year period, essentially preventing one million single-use bottles from being purchased and then discarded.

The panel argued whether HydraChill units could be introduced alongside accessible drinking fountains, but Feehily argued that the capital and maintenance costs made water fountains unfeasible. Feehily did suggest that apps could help drive consumer awareness about the availability of free water. He noted that retailers could enter into platforms that showcase them for offering free water to consumers.

A trial similar to this is already available in Bristol, where cafes, shops, hotels and businesses are encouraged to let the public refill water bottles for free. London Zoo and Selfridges have conducted similar schemes. For the latter, the project manager of the OneLess campaign Fiona Llewellyn, noted that sales of refillable bottles had grown by 1780% since the ban, compared to the same three-month period the year prior. Llewellyn also revealed that Selfridges had prevented the sale of around 400,000 single-use bottles as a result.

Llewellyn and other members of the panel believed that any decision to implement a deposit scheme for single-use bottles would have to be supported by a marketing campaign that attracted consumers towards long-lasting refillable bottles.

“Water bottles are an opportunity to reduce plastic going into the system,” Llewellyn said. “Water has a free alternative to change the system, other liquids don’t come out of a tap and we need other solutions for them.

“There’s an opportunity for London to lead the way on this and we should be talking about this in a positive way. We can talk about hydration and being a global leading city that is tackling ocean pollution. We should be encouraging businesses and communities to make the change themselves. I’d love to see the Mayor talk about it and transform London into an ocean-friendly city that overcomes barriers for change.”

Matt Mace

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