24 February 2017

Can a deposit scheme for bottles and cans work?

Phil Conran, director at environmental consultancy 360 Environmental offers his view on the recent debate about deposit return schemes for materials such as cans and bottles.

The discussion about a potential deposit return scheme (DRS) for Scotland raises a number of issues and there are a range of views.

ACP chair Phil Conran

Phil Conran, director of 360 Environmental

I would have some concerns about the practicalities of implementation for retailers being asked to handle, store and dispose of returned containers.

I would suggest that people are generally not going to bother to take back a single can or plastic bottle for 5-10p. So if this is about litter, then I would assume the expectation is that scouts, vagrants and others might act as street cleaners picking up the empties and taking a sack full to their nearest retailer.

But, these returns could be bottles or cans that still contain liquid and could be heavily contaminated having being picked off the street or out of bins.

A shopkeeper will then have to scan and sort the bottles into the separate materials. They will then need separate containers which will need space and probably a Permit Exemption registered.

DRS: What do others say?

This week deposit return schemes have been in the news after Coca Cola Great Britain said that it would support a DRS in Scotland, a change in stance from the drinks giant (see letsrecycle.com story). But, there is not universal support for the measure, with local authorities and retailers among those to offer doubts that it could work to reduce litter and boost recycling (see letsrecycle.com story).

This will then need collection arrangements that will require transfer notes and, if the contents are unknown, potentially consignment notes before they are despatched to a MRF or storage facility.


Of course, the temptation for those seeking to collect bottles for money could be to go around emptying people’s recycling bins on collection day to pull out anything of value.

The Eunomia report for ZWS suggests a street sweeping saving in Scotland of over £200m. That seems optimistic  given that there will still be non-DRS litter and flytipping – cigarette packets, burger clams, newspapers, plastic bags. Potentially, therefore, this could lead to a huge cost that might have little impact on the totality of litter, could impact significantly on council collections and would be a huge practical problem for retailers.

This will no doubt have been thought through and solutions considered that may overcome the practical difficulties. Other countries manage it, but I just wonder if we are at a different starting point and whether the challenges of applying deposit return in a society that seems to value convenience and time above all else can be overcome.

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