UK’s Deposit Return Scheme for drinks packaging set to exclude glass
The UK Government has touted plans to delay the introduction of a nationwide Deposit Return Scheme, designed to boost drinks packaging recycling, to 2025. It is also set to exclude glass bottles in England – a decision proving unpopular with environmental groups.
A UK-wide Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) has been on the cards since late 2018, when the Government launched its Resources and Waste Strategy. Under such a scheme, customers are required to pay a small deposit when purchasing drinks, which they can receive back as a refund when returning the drinks packaging for recycling through a verified channel. This could be a return to the counter in supermarkets or through the use of reverse vending machines. Nations already running DRSs include Germany, Finland and Norway.
The Resources and Waste Strategy suffered a string of delays amid Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, with the Government pushing back the DRS introduction until at least 2024.
Today (20 January), the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published its overdue response to the latest round of consultations on the DRS. The response confirms that the DRS is set to be implemented in 2025. It will cover England, Wales and Northern Ireland, given that Scotland’s own Scheme will go live this August.
Working to this timeline means that the establishment of a new Deposit Management Organisation – an independent, industry-led organisation – will be put into motion in the coming weeks. The Organisation will set the deposit rate in the first instance and regulate the Scheme once it is up and running.
Despite the delay, there is some good news. The consultation confirmed widespread support for a DRS. 83% of respondents said they would be in favour of a scheme. There was broad recognition of the importance of reducing the littering of drinks packaging and improving recycling rates, which currently sit around 70% when all materials and sizes are accounted for.
Is the glass half empty?
The other bad news, for some environmental groups, is that Defra is leaning towards options other than an ‘all-in’ approach, which could cover drinks containers of all sizes and of all materials. Speficially, Defra’s proposals entail excluding glass bottles from the scheme in England and Northern Ireland. Wales looks keen to include glass. Scotland’s DRS also notably includes glass.
Defra’s justification of this decision is that the UK consumes – and litters – more plastic drinks bottles and drinks cans than glass bottles. Its own figures state that 14 billion plastic drinks bottles and nine billion drinks cans are used each year. It believes that, even with glass excluded, the DRS will lead to an 85% decrease in drinks container littering within three years.
Understandably, industry body British Glass is happy with the approach. It has been lobbying for better kerbside collections of glass, arguing that including glass in a DRS would “split glass food and beverage packaging into two waste streams – to the detriment of both”.
But many environmental groups say the exclusion of glass is disingenuous. Although glass is 100% recyclable and industry bodies have touted a 76% recycling rate, this figure includes glass used in other applications such as windows. The recycling rate for glass containers may well be far lower, with one estimate putting it at 38%. There is also an opportunity, through a DRS, to scale glass reuse systems where bottles are washed and refilled rather than recycled.
A Plastic Planet’s co-founder Sian Sutherland said: “We cannot continue to ignore the UK’s chronically low levels of glass recycling. We need urgent systems change that do not create perverse incentives in the market and leave our environment open to perpetual degradation.”
City to Sea’s policy manager Steve Hynd said: “The evidence base on this issue is clear – we need an ‘all in’ deposit return scheme that will incentivise refill and reuse over recycling. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky thinking. Other countries already have this. The Danish system, for example, has almost one-quarter of all deposit-marked bottles as refillable. We cannot recycle our way out of the environmental crisis we face, we need a wholesale shift to reuse and refill and a DRS fit for purpose could and should be a key tool to helping us achieve that.”
Green Alliance’s head of resource policy Libby Peake, like City to Sea’s Hynd, argued that it would not be wise for England’s DRS to be “less ambitious” than Scotland’s or Wales in excluding glass. “This will only add to consumer confusion,” she said.
Some of the UK’s biggest beverage players are also calling for interoperability between the Systems in place in each devolved nation. Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I’s head of sustainability and external affairs, Liz Nieboer, said: “For the schemes to be effective, they need to be 100% interoperable. Manufacturers and retailers operate in one UK market, so divergence creates unnecessary cost and complexity potentially impacting consumer choice and adding extra burden to business.”
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