'Unanswered questions': Green community reacts to the UK's deposit return scheme plans

With the headlines dominated by the Government's proposals for a national deposit return scheme, edie has enlisted the insights of industry experts to gauge their thoughts on whether the move will boost the UK's resource efficiency prospects.

edie has spoken with leading figures from the UK's waste and resource management industry to hear their thoughts on the Government's deposit return scheme proposals

edie has spoken with leading figures from the UK's waste and resource management industry to hear their thoughts on the Government's deposit return scheme proposals

Announcing his department’s plans this morning (28 March), Michael Gove stressed it was “absolutely vital” to tackle the waste caused by the 13 billion plastics bottles consumed in the UK each year.

The UK’s continental neighbours in Scandinavia and Germany have proved that return schemes - which sees a small deposit placed on drinks bottles and cans that can later be reimbursed to consumers -  can prove a successful waste reduction tool when implemented correctly.  

Any such scheme in England will be subject to a public consultation later this year, which will take into account views from producers, retailers and consumers. The consultation will sit alongside a package of wider reforms of the current packaging waste system, which aims to incentivise producers to increase the amount of packaging they recycle.

Following this morning's announcement, the green community has been left to mull over an array of unanswered questions: Will a deposit return scheme be enough to boost the UK's stagnating recycling rates? Or should it form part of a wider producer-responsibility regime to incentivise the most sustainable choices for both consumers and manufacturers? Is the UK's recycling system sufficiently well-equipped to handle the added plastics material? And what else needs to be included in the Government's upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy?

edie has heard from a variety of stakeholders within the waste and resource management agenda to understand the role that a deposit return scheme could play in the UK's drive for resource efficiency. 

Retailers

For the most part, retailers are largely in support of the scheme. The likes of Co-op, Tesco and Lidl have all voiced support for a nationwide implementation of the scheme. In fact, Iceland’s head of packaging Ian Schofield revealed to edie that the retailer has already spoken to Defra about trialling reverse vending at stores.

“To stem the tide of plastic and the damage this is causing the world over needs leadership and cooperation at all levels,” Schofield told edie. “We support the introduction of the deposit return scheme for single-use bottles in England. We have also spoken with DEFRA to offer to trial a reverse vending machine in our stores.

“It’s also positive that the Government is open to further initiatives that will seek to reduce plastic waste. Recycling will be key, but plastic reduction must also be prioritised. Ultimately, there is just too much being produced.”

Reverse vending is an automated method for collecting, sorting and handling the return of used beverage containers for recycling or reuse. 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.

But while retailers have been quick to voice support, some industry experts suggest the costs and the logistics of reverse vending could sour some opinions on operating it within busy high-street stores.

Hubbub’s Square Mile Coffee Cup challenge has highlighted how well collection processes can work in busy high-street centres, and the charity’s founder Trewin Restorick told edie that a deposit return system will work well for “on-the-go” purchases, but that the overall system could be “potentially damaging” for existing infrastructure and local authorities.

“Deposit return systems have a role to play in on-the-go situations on busy high street areas,” Restorick told edie. “The question is where do you put the machine? Retailers are concerned whether they’ll put the machines in their high-street stores. They have limited space and the machinery will have a cost and maintenance.

“Our concern is that [the new system] doesn’t damage existing infrastructure. Other nations where this has worked are less densely populated and have more space for this system. Also, the system was built in from the original design, whereas we’re trying to bolt something on to an existing system.”

Consumers

Last year, waste companies and local authorities were urged to communicate more clearly with consumers after it was revealed that the amount of contaminated recycling sent to landfill had almost doubled in three years.

Retailers and waste management firms alike often tell of the need for easier consumer messaging to encourage recycling. While the deposit return scheme encourages more recycling, some are worried that implementation will lead to even more consumer confusion.

Former Coca-Cola innovation connector and founder of the Packaging Collective, Sanjay Patel, previously told edie that the packaging industry lacked an “overall brief” of what materials should be used, how they should be handled and how this should all be communicated to the consumer.

According to Patel, the announcement of the deposit return scheme in England has failed to address how consumers will interact with the system. Notably, Patel called for clarity on whether consumers should continue to recycle packaging at home or interact directly with the retailers.

“It’s always worth starting from a human-centric design to understand the problems and behaviours they have,” Patel told edie. “No one has really thought this through and I’m not sure the user journey has been mapped properly and that the existing infrastructure has been examined.

“There are huge implications here and things haven’t been thought through from a consumer perspective. If people can’t put stuff in the correct recycling bin at home, how are we going to change their fundamental shopping behaviour to recycle materials.”

A nationwide deposit return scheme will likely impact those living in flats in urban areas much differently to those living remotely in the countryside. How consumers can interact with the system needs an in-depth examination.

Infrastructure

Another key consideration centres around the impact the any such scheme will have on the UK’s existing recycling and waste infrastructure, which has come under strain following China’s decision to ban all imports of contaminated plastic waste.

Experts suggest the UK is presently nowhere near ready to create the number of recycling plants required should it decide that all plastic waste must now be recycled on home soil. These concerns could be exacerbated if the introduction of a deposit return scheme means that significant quantities of beverage containers no longer go through material recovery facilities.

There are also concerns that a return scheme could make kerbside collections uneconomic. Local authorities already provide comprehensive kerbside schemes for the materials that a deposit return scheme would target. PET bottles are worth around £130 a tonne – a major income stream for local authorities, which helps prop up recycling collection schemes.

Speaking with edie, the Recycling Association’s chief executive Simon Ellin express his concern that a national deposit return scheme could have a detrimental impact on kerbside collection services which are “crying out for investment”.   

“By going ad-hoc and introducing the deposit return scheme, that could have negative impacts on the system elsewhere. One immediately thinks of the impact it will have on existing kerbside collection schemes - all of the deposit return systems that I know of have all been introduced before kerbside recovery systems.

“So are we effectively going to be taking away the revenue local authorities, which are already cash strapped and struggling with kerbside? This could cherry pick and take out all of the easy-to-capture valuable materials and leave the local authorities with the dross to carry the carry the can with."

Policy

Ellin said that, for a deposit return scheme to prove a success, it needs to be part of a joined-up thinking policy approach that focuses on delivering better packaging design and recycling consistency.

The Government will publish a new Resources and Waste Strategy later this year, where secondary material markets are expected be promoted, while producers will be incentivised to design products better. It could also pave the way for taxes or charges for single-use plastics, in order to avoid producers or consumers being charged multiple times for the same products.

One area where experts would like to see change is through an overhaul of Producer Responsibility Obligations (PROs). The system creates a legal obligation for packaging producers to ensure that a proportion of their marketed products are recovered and recycled. Businesses can show evidence of their compliance by purchasing Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs).

For the UK, this cost is around €20 per tonne, but other European nations have an average for producer responsibility at around €150 per tonne. PROs from UK businesses currently contribute to just 10% of the cost of waste disposal, with taxpayers paying the remaining 90%.

The Environmental Services Association’s recycling adviser Jakob Rindegren warned that a deposit return scheme could cause the value of PRNs to plummet and deter the collection of other plastic materials.

Rindegren told edie: “If deposit return scheme material is still covered by PRNs and more is collected (and depending on targets) the PRN value will drop and there will be less incentive to collect other plastic packaging.

"If deposit return scheme material however is not covered by PRNs then the value of plastic PRNs will dramatically increase to recycle PTTs and flexibles.”

Matt Mace and George Ogleby


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