‘Lack of political desire’ biggest barrier to establishing UK bottle deposit scheme

EXCLUSIVE: The implementation of a deposit scheme for plastic bottles in the UK now hinges on "political desire" rather than technological barriers, the chief executive of solutions provider and reverse vending expert TOMRA has suggested.

As coverage of marine plastic waste has grown, driven by fresh CSR campaigns from the likes of Sky, so have discussions about the UK’s willingness to tackle the issue head on. The UK’s recycling rates for plastic bottles are flatlining at 57%, while other European nations are recording recycling rates for bottles at 98%.

Nations such as Germany and Belgium have implement deposit schemes on plastic bottles, which account for around 33% of global marine plastic litter, that add small charges between 5-20p on drink containers at the point of sale. Many of these systems are driven by ‘reverse vending’, an automated method for collecting, sorting and handling the return of used beverage containers for recycling or reuse.

Norwegian firm TOMRA is a world-leader in reverse vending, having installed 75,000 systems across 60 countries. For the company’s chief executive Stefan Ranstrand, a nationwide implementation of the system is less about cost or technological restrictions, and more about the political desire to capture a business model tailored to the circular economy.

“It is a pure political process,” Ranstrand told edie. “You need a highly engaged political sphere that is focusing on the environmental matters. There’s a lot of promotion on litter in the UK, there are too many educated people who actually care for the environment for this to be ignored much longer.

“All the technologies are available, they are there and there is no longer a technological hurdle. It is purely a political desire to create the circular economy and take responsibility for the waste that is being generated.”

Around 35 billion used beverage containers are captured every year using TOMRA’s reverse vending machines. Earlier this month, TOMRA launched a new initiative in New South Wales to place approximately 800 reverse vending machines across the state, contributing to its litter volume reduction target of 40% by 2020.

The plastic tide is turning

Recent research from the Green Alliance suggests that incorporating reverse vending as part of a wider return deposit scheme in the UK could reduce one third of plastic seeping into the oceans.

Even bottlers are starting to warm to the idea. Drinks giant Coca-Cola has announced it supports testing a deposit return service for drinks cans and bottles, after previously claiming that it did not reduce packaging use or improve recyclability.

However, the UK market for deposit schemes is in its infancy, with businesses and politicians looking at alternatives – such as water refill stations or outright bans on plastic bottles instead.

Defra explored the potential of a deposit scheme as far back as 2008, but suggested that alternative schemes can achieve the same outcomes at a lower cost. The lack of political desire could be shifting, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove calling on the Government to introduce a deposit scheme “as soon as possible”.

But while the Government drags its heels over implementation, Ranstrand suggests that the UK could boost its green economy and create new jobs by rolling out a nationwide scheme.

“I think its fundamentally wrong to export waste when it’s an opportunity for countries to create a green economy,” he added. “If the UK was to have the ambition to reuse all of its plastic waste, it would create new companies and new green jobs to transform and create new products, from clothing to manufacturers.

“With reverse vending, you can act on three parameters of reducing litter, enabling closed-loop recycling and enabling consumers to contribute to the environment.”

The Campaign To Protect Rural England (CPRE) explored the viability of deposit schemes as early as 2008, with Bristol-based consultants Eunomia publishing report off the back of CPRE’s wider anti-littering campaign, detailing the costs of implementation. The Have We Got the Bottle Study found that a deposit scheme would cost £84m to introduce, £700m to run each year and would generate £160m in savings for local authorities. Additional benefits of the deposit scheme were claimed to reach £1.2bn for the UK economy.

Global tipping point

Almost 10 years on, Ranstrand believes support for deposit schemes is reaching a “tipping point” and that global factors could make the scheme more attractive in the UK. Research from EnergyDesk found that the UK exported two-thirds of its packaging waste abroad for recycling, the highest rate of the last three years. More than 515,000 tonnes were exported, largely to Asia. However, China’s crackdown on the quality of its plastic that it accepts as part of Operation Green Fence has led to concerns over illegal waste streams leaving the UK, arriving in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Although exporting key waste materials, such as plastics and paper, is worth £4.35bn to the UK economy, heightened scrutiny abroad combined with the economic incentives to champion the circular economy and create second-life resources nationally could sway the tide on the implementation of a deposit scheme.

Matt Mace

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