Why is the UK’s Deposit Return Scheme causing so much drama?
In late 2018, the UK Government pledged to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) to boost drinks packaging recycling rates. More than four years later, governments, green groups and retailers are still rowing over the right scheme timeline.
The DRS was a key part of the Resources and Waste Strategy (RWS)– the first comprehensive British policy package on this topic in more than a decade. When the Strategy was published at the end of 2018, hopes were high for a rapid roll-out of new policies to boost plastic packaging recycling rates.
The Government estimates that 14 billion plastic drinks bottles and nine billion cans are used in the UK every year, with a significant minority either binned or littered. Its proposed solutions were new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) requirements on packaging producers, plus the DRS.
Under a DRS, consumers pay a refundable deposit on each drink purchased and get this back when returning the packaging through an approved recycling point. The deposit is around 20p per container. DRSs are already in place in 10 European nations and at least 25 further afield.
The UK was set to join this cohort this year. But within 18 months of the RWS’s launch, virtually all green policymaking in the UK had ground to a halt as resources in Whitehall were redirected to the management of the Covid-19 crisis. While policies on topics such as nature conservation and low-carbon heat eventually returned to the table, the RWS was the last major green policy package in the queue.
And, as lockdown restrictions lifted in the UK and the pandemic dropped down the Ministerial agenda, a new reason for further delays rose its head (aside from outdated Government computer systems).
The cost-of-living crisis prompted retailers to call for even further delays to the DRS, on top of the extension to 2024 that was confirmed in spring 2021.
The British Retail Consortium’s sustainability policy advisor Nadiya Catel-Arutyunova tells edie why. She explains that its 200+ member businesses are not against DRSs in principle; they support the environmental objective. But they do not believe it is the right time for the Government to subject their industry to extra costs.
Brexit, Catel-Arutyunova says, has a role to play in tandem with inflation. Add labour shortages and supply chain disruptions to the mix, and retailers are simply not able to prepare, she argues.
She summarises: “The scale of impact from the proposed DRS will have a complex and disruptive impact on our industry, at a time when retailers are not only battling food inflation on the behalf of consumers, but trying to incorporate changes to their supply chains to meet the new UK border controls and the Windsor Framework.”
The Consortium’s advocacy – and that of other trade groups – has been heard in Whitehall. The UK-wide DRS was pushed back to 2025 this year. Scotland has also delayed its own iteration, due to be the first in Britain, by seven months to early 2024.
And the Consortium is considering taking a stand for an even longer timeline outside of Scotland. Catel-Arutyunova believes that a 2025 launch would be “incredibly challenging”.
‘Kicking the can down the road’
It bears noting that some businesses were disappointed with the DRS’s delay, largely because they had invested significantly in readying their packaging and systems. The British Soft Drinks Association, for one, is calling for Government assurance to protect industry investment to date and is cautioning against further delays.
Another is BRITA UK, which aims to significantly reduce the use of bottled water by providing filtration products and services.
BRITA UK’s managing director David Hall tells edie: “While I have a little bit of sympathy over delays because of Covid-19, we know this is not a problem that’s going to go away.
“The issue we’ve really got with anything to do with sustainability is that, unfortunately, if we don’t jump on the topic of plastics in society now, and we keep delaying the roll-out, the problem gets worse and worse. The cost gets higher and higher and gets deferred to later.”
This is the same point that has been made this month about the water sector’s new pledge for £10bn of investment to stem pollution. Had this funding been promised (and borrowed) at a time of lower inflation, the costs for consumers would have been lower.
In addition to higher costs, Hall warns of the potential for individuals and businesses to become “disenfranchised” with the Government’s approach to plastics amid delay after delay. He adds: “We have an obligation to make changes as much as we possibly can now. When you see regulation getting delayed, it runs counter to the real problems we see in society.”
Of course, most environmental groups are staunchly against further DRS delays. Common Seas’ head of policy Patrick Mahon tells edie that while retailers’ requests for longer timelines are “understandable”, “quite bluntly, there’s always going to be an argument for putting things off or not doing them at all”.
If it’s not the cost-of-living crisis now, he notes, it may well be the climate crisis and nature crisis later. These will come with their own major economic burdens. And the irony is that prolonging green policy timelines can contribute to making these twin crises worse. Mahon urges retailers to take a longer-term view.
He also reiterates that the Government has already conducted cost-benefit analyses on a DRS, showing that it is worthwhile in the long-term. This is partly because it enables some of the societal costs of plastic waste, currently paid in the public sector, to be transferred to the private sector.
DRSs also have a purely economic benefit, Mahon notes: “This is a powerful policy mechanism that can really enable high collection rates for clean, single-use packaging – and because things are collected separately, you end up with high-quality material and high-value recycling.”
‘Glass half full’
The implementation timeline is not the only facet of the DRS causing fierce debate. Views also differ widely on whether the scheme should cover containers of all materials and sizes, sold through a wide range of outlets. DRSs that are broad in these ways are known as ‘all-in’.
Understandably, some independent restaurants, bars and nightclubs have advocated for their exclusion from the Scheme. The crux of their arguments is that it is challenging to facilitate container take-back with small teams and limited space, and that customers may choose to drink at home if they believe it will be hard to get their deposits back.
The other main alternative to this system is an ‘on-the-go’ system. This sort of system only applies a deposit to containers for drinks that are most likely to be drunk – you guessed it – outside of the home or a venue. Advocates for this approach highlight how it targets the containers most likely to be littered.
But the UK Government is proposing something somewhat different – a scheme that is ‘all-in’ in terms of which businesses and container sizes it covers, but not in the materials covered. It is preparing to exclude glass, given that plastic bottles and cans are more commonly littered.
The glass industry is, of course, thrilled with this proposal. Common Seas’ Mahon also understands the Government’s logic in terms of littering and recycling rates for glass.
But Common Seas ultimately, like many environmental groups, believes it “makes very little sense to have multiple DRSs when the UK is a single market”. Scotland will certainly include glass in its own scheme. Moreover, Mahon wants the scheme to be “as comprehensive as possible”.
This is one point upon which businesses (excluding the glass sector) and environmentalists seem broadly aligned. The British Retail Consortium is advocating for as much alignment as possible between DRSs in each devolved part of the UK.
Ministers will this summer publish the full results of consultations on proposals for glass to be excluded from the DRS in England and Wales. So, expect more DRS-related drama once that document drops.
Join the conversation at edie’s Circular Economy Action Sessions
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