Deposit Return Scheme – Have we got the Bottle?

Following on from the Global Plastic Pollution Crisis article in June the focus here is on one key solution in the UK to reduce the huge amount of discarded bottles and cans polluting our coastline, rivers, and inland areas – namely the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (for Scotland see below). This proposed Scheme is supported by many NGOs, and indeed the Government itself, in its Environment Act of November 2021.

Some readers may recall in days gone by when the only litter left behind on beaches were glass Corona bottles. They were often collected from local beaches and returned to retailers for reuse by school pupils keen to supplement their pocket money by claiming the 3d (thruppence) deposits! This was, in essence, a DRS, which was popular and worked well.

Things changed dramatically following those heady days, with the inexorable rise of plastic and metal packaging, and the expectations of consumers who like to have their drinks available “on-the-go” in an increasingly mobile society.

This brave new world fully embraced the linear economy – in which products were made. used, and thrown away, and often disposed of in mostly holes in the ground (landfill) – with no real thought given to the consequences both for the natural world, or also for the inevitable pollution which ensued. Exponential growth and relentless consumption was the order of the day.

By 2017 incineration had replaced landfill here in Cornwall as the principal means of disposal for household waste, with kerbside recycling rates dropping in 2019/20 to their lowest level in a decade – averaging around 33%.

Thankfully, a new dawn has been breaking where the need for excessive packaging is being challenged; the finite nature of Planet Earth’s resources is being recognised, and the circular economy slowly gaining ground. Waste management policies and practices are changing, and the Waste Hierarchy is now being taken far more seriously since it was first introduced by the European Union back in the 1970s.

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Our own Government and Cornwall Council both launched their Resources and Waste Strategies in 2018, which make it clear that we all have to take much greater responsibility for reducing the waste we are creating, not only to protect our environment, but to also reduce carbon and other emissions. Also that we need effective and efficient reuse and recycling practices in place to achieve the objectives set out in the Waste Hierarchy. You can check out both these documents via the following links.

But what progress has been, and is being made, on the introduction of Deposit Return Schemes generally and nationally to improve recycling rates and conserve natural resources ?

At the grass-roots level, campaign groups – who organise numerous volunteer beach-cleans and lobby for action on marine litter – work hard as the tide ebbs and flows relentlessly bringing in plastic waste in particular, including bottles, bottle tops and microplastics in their thousands. Most have been calling for the introduction of a DRS to reduce litter and improve recycling rates.

As an experiment to assess the size of the problem one Transition Truro supporter has collected nearly 1500 discarded drinks containers on random litter-picks during the first six months of this year, mostly in and around the Truro area. They were gleaned with the minimum of effort from hedgerows, roadsides, parks, and especially river foreshores with 35% plastic, 55% metal and 15% glass containers collected overall and recycled,

sample : local river foreshore

July saw 265 littered drinks containers collected, and already in August the total figure has swelled to just over 2000 with the evidence being fed through to the Marine Conservation Society

This form of litter is unsightly, costly to remove officially, pollutes the environment, a waste of resources, and in the case of plastic bottles can take very many years to decompose in the marine environment – and then only break up into microplastics. And when added to the billions of other microplastics (nurdles) which enter the sea directly from container ship spills, this makes for a truly serious situation requiring urgent action (see this article from The Guardian)

Another report which also recently appeared in the Guardian revealed that microplastics, in minute form, have now been found in human blood for the first time.

Many countries have shown that a DRS is a really effective solution offering a financial incentive to return littered containers for recycling.

This was recognised by the South Australian Government back in 2017, when they celebrated the 40th anniversary of the introduction of their DRS introduced way back in 1977. Sustainability Minister Ian Hunter said the initiative had accelerated recycling rates where 580 million drink containers are recycled in the state every year.

“We’ve got the lowest percentage of drink containers in our litter scheme of the whole country” … “we’re recycling and diverting from landfill about 80 percent of our waste right across the board,”

he commented. A 10 cent refund is offered on every bottle or can be returned for recycling. Other states in the country have followed their example.

Norway is considered to have the most effective DRS in the world, which has been in operation since 1999. 97% of all plastic bottles are returned with less than 1% ending up in the environment.

It is estimated that 92% are recycled back into plastic bottles.A charge of 1 Norwegian Kroner is applied to each standard 500ml bottle, the equivalent of about 10 pence in the UK, and a 2.5 Kroner deposit (25p) on larger bottles

According to Zero Waste Scotland deposit return schemes are already being used effectively in over 45 countries and territories around the world from Sweden to Saskatchewan capturing well over 90% of targeted containers.

Scotland is due to launch its DRS in the summer of 2023.

This is very good news. Consumers will pay a small deposit of 20p when they buy a drink in a single-use container, and then get the deposit back when they return the empty bottle or can to a designated collection point.

You can check out all the details on the Zero Waste Scotland website.

In London at Wimbledon this summer, Evian, which has sponsored the Tennis Championships since 2008, launched a pilot deposit-return scheme for their water bottles and cans at the grounds, called ‘Reward4Waste’.  Their global circular economy manager said it is

“imperative to have an effective and efficient collection system in place to encourage and empower consumers to keep plastic out of nature and in the circular economy”

Estimates suggest that over 8 billion drinks containers are wasted across the UK each year.

Campaign groups and many others are convinced an all-in Deposit Return Scheme would be one of the most effective solutions to turning the tide on litter and pollution. The Government committed to a DRS in last year’s Environment Act, and the former Environment Minister – Steve Double MP (St.Austell) – is reported as saying recently

“It is absolutely vital we act now to curb the millions of plastic bottles a day that go unrecycled. I welcome that the Environment Act 2021 includes new powers to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for drinks containers. This will recycle billions more plastic bottles and stop them being landfilled or littered. I believe that this will help to change consumer behaviours with potential knock-on effects to other environmental activities” (1st August)

Will the Government now have the bottle to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme here in England without further delay?


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