Leon and Veolia partner to launch reverse-vending scheme in London

Leon’s technical manager Anca Ghitescu and Veolia’s chief technology and innovation officer Richard Kirkman with the new machine

The reverse-vending machine was unveiled on Friday (15 March) under the West Handyside Canopy in King’s Cross and accepts both plastic drinks bottles and aluminium cans for drinks of 750ml or less.

In order to incentivise consumers to use the machine, a 10% discount voucher for Leon’s St Pancras Square branch will be printed for every can or bottle deposited. Cans and bottles collected are sent to Veolia’s facilities for cleaning and reprocessing.

The machine is being jointly funded by Veolia, King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership (KCCLP) and Leon as part of a six-month trial, in which the businesses will gauge consumer appetite for this method of recycling. If this pilot proves successful, more reverse-vending technology could be installed across the King’s Cross area, or near to other Leon branches, in the following months.

Veolia’s chief technology and innovation officer Richard Kirkman dubbed the pilot scheme a “yardstick for on-the-go recycling”.

“Located in a high-footfall area and targeting the drinks containers most commonly misplaced – plastic bottles up to 750ml and aluminium cans – the machine offers an alternative to carrying recyclable items home or discarding them as litter,” Kirkman said.

“We hope as the pilot unfolds, it proves the importance of recycling on the go as well as the need for appropriate infrastructure to facilitate it.”

Behaviour change challenges

The launch of the scheme comes after UK recycling rates for plastic bottles were found to have stagnated at 43% in 2018, with 700,000 being littered every day. British consumers use 13 billion plastic bottles a year, but only 7.5 billion are recycled. In total, 240,000 tonnes of plastic waste from drinks bottles of 750ml or less is sent to landfill or incineration nationally every year.

In response to the issue, the UK Government is proposing to launch a nationwide deposit return scheme for bottles by the end of 2023, claiming that the move could boost the UK’s plastic recycling rate to 90% and help businesses repurpose plastic waste streams by assigning them a value.

The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently consulting with food and drinks brands, retailers, waste management firms, packaging producers and other key stakeholders to determine how such a scheme, set out in its Resources and Waste Strategy, should look.

Specifically, the Department is exploring two variants of the system, which will operate for both aluminium cans and plastic and glass bottles. An “all-in” model would focus on all beverages placed on the market, irrespective of size, while the second, “on-the-go” model would restrict drinks containers that could operate in the system to less than 750ml and sold in a single format

Before the consultation was launched in February, several big-name businesses had either publicly backed calls for a nationwide deposit return scheme or hosted reverse-vending machines themselves.

Iceland, for example, collected more than 300,000 bottles during the first nine months of its deposit return system, which it operates across four stores and in its Deeside-based head office. Smaller reverse-vending trials have also been held by the likes of Morrisons, The Co-op and Tesco.

Veolia has additionally been a long-time supporter of a nationwide deposit return system, and this week unveiled the results of a survey of 1,000 UK adults on their perception of reverse vending. 81% of respondents said they would be prepared to “go out of their way” to use a reverse vending machine, with just 5% saying that nothing – including rewards for ‘good’ behaviour and fines for not recycling – would motivate them to recycle in public.

Sarah George 

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie