The bottle deposit scheme is a relatively recent idea that has hit the press with a bang. There are already lots of trials going on in various parts of the UK as well as in supermarkets and so far the scheme seems to be a promising way to encourage higher rates of recycling. 

But while the results look good, we can’t help but wonder what the downsides of such a scheme could be if were rolled out across the country. Any effort to improve recycling should be seen as a good thing but is this really the way to go?

Here are a few questions we’d like to raise but first, what does a bottle deposit scheme entail? 

The Scottish Bottle Deposit Scheme

Scotland’s recently unveiled proposal for a bottle deposit scheme is designed to encourage people to return drinks containers of all kinds to supermarkets, which are required to comply and accept returns. Every bottle bought will include a deposit in the cost which will be refunded on the return of the bottle. The amount is scalable depending on the bottle but won’t be any more than 20p. 

The scheme itself will be run by an independent, not-for-profit company who will provide accessible collection points in every community. Funding will come from unredeemed deposits, revenue from the sale of materials and a producer fee. 

Any bottle deposit scheme is essentially an extension of the polluter pays principle. This means that the person buying a plastic bottle pays more for the product but is, as a result, incentivised to recycle through a reimbursement. 

5 Important Questions to Consider

The positive aspects of a bottle deposit scheme are widely known and shared. Indeed, the positives are so well known that you would be forgiven for not realising that there could be any downsides at all. 

Balancing the arguments is a really important aspect of waste management. In our experience, there’s always likely to be a compromise somewhere and finding the best solution is often about working out what to prioritise and how to get as many wins as possible. 

In many cases, waste management comes down to 4 things: compliance, environmentally friendly methods, efficiency in terms of time and resources, and cost-effectiveness or value for money. This is why it’s so important to consider all the arguments of any new strategy. A recycling rate of 99.9% might be feasible but if it is unaffordable and inefficient, it’s probably not going to work in the long term. 

Would People Be Incentivised to Recycle More?

One of the main principles of a bottle deposit scheme is that people are more likely to do something if they have an incentive. By adding a nominal value to a waste product, people are more likely to see that waste as an asset rather than a nuisance. The thought of throwing a bottle away in this scenario is comparable to throwing 20p away. 

But will it work?

In Norway, the answer is a resounding yes with businesses that offer recycling points reporting an increase in business. Trials in the UK have also suggested that people are willing to use bottle deposit schemes to recycle and Iceland, in particular, has shown that shop coupons can be used as an incentive too. 

Will Recycling Rates Increase as a Result?

Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands all have drinks bottle return rates of over 90% through their bottle deposit schemes and Sweden has a return rate of 85%. This suggests that, while there is still room for improvement, the UK could benefit from a similar scheme.

The UK recycles just 57% of the 13 billion plastic bottles we use each year. Approximately 5.5 billion bottles aren’t recycled at all and around 700,000 end up as litter while the rest go to landfill or waste reclamation facilities where they are incinerated. 

However, it’s important to note that the bottle deposit scheme isn’t the only factor at play. Norway has also put an environmental tax on plastic producers which only comes into play if the overall recycling rate of the country slips below 95%. In 7 years, this hasn’t happened once. 

Plans for a UK bottle deposit scheme would also tie into other incentives such as the plastic packaging tax. This tax would be applied to plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled materials, encouraging producers to use more recycled materials. 

Could Giving Drinks Bottles a Value Reduce Littering?

People are usually less inclined to litter when they could make some money by clearing up. This is the reason that you rarely see dumped valuables – if there is something to gain, someone is going to make the most of the opportunity. 

Even a small value of 20p is likely to encourage people to dispose of their waste more responsibly. And, even where a bottle is left behind, it’s very possible that someone else would cash in on the waste and return it to a bottle deposit themselves.

An added benefit here is that if individuals are more inclined to remove and dispose of litter properly, local councils should save quite a significant amount on street cleaning. Waste bottles represent 40% of the volume of litter collected and though it’s not clear whether there would be a direct correlation between reduced spending and bottle deposits, the argument for improvement on these terms is certainly compelling.

Should Recycling be a Communal or Individual Responsibility?

A bottle deposit scheme is all about incentivising individuals to recycle. But this raises an important question – should it be the individual taking responsibility for recycling? 

At the moment, most recycling processes rely on the individual. There is no national plan for recycling and every local council uses different colours of bins, accepts different materials in different combinations and treats each waste differently too. This puts a lot of pressure on the individual to research and understand what they can and can’t recycle. It’s also possible that if one person gets their recycling wrong, the whole street load can end up in landfills as a result.

A bottle deposit scheme also puts pressure on the individual. Instead of putting their waste into a particular bin at home, individuals will have to take their waste with them to a deposit point. While most people will quickly get used to this becoming a part of their weekly shop, it does raise questions about how elderly or disabled people might cope with this new responsibility. 

There’s a good argument that taking the responsibility of recycling away from individuals would make a much better system. As waste sorting machines become more sophisticated – just look at ZenRobotics and their use of AI – it could be possible for individuals to put everything in one bin and for a machine to pick out various waste streams from there. 

This sort of recycling may not be feasible right now but it should be a consideration for the future. By taking the responsibility away from millions of individuals all acting on their own, a system that sorts everything together will, in theory, minimise contamination and maximise the number of recyclables collected.

The compromise the bottle deposit scheme makes is putting a greater burden onto the individual but incentivising proper disposal through rebates. 

Will People be Incentivised to Choose More Reusable Products?

One of the great successes of the German bottle deposit scheme is the sharp rise in recycling rates. 99% of cans are now recycled. The deposit scheme has also reduced litter on the streets as Pfandsammler or ‘deposit collectors’ are clearing the streets of bottles so that they can receive the deposit. 

But the biggest issue with the scheme is that stores like Aldi and Lidl have actually switched to non-reusable bottles as a consequence of the scheme as these bottles are easier to manage in a streamlines returns system. As a result, the overall percentage of reusable bottles has actually sunk from about 80% to below 50%. This is a major problem because the aim of any recycling scheme should always be to create a system that encourages proper use of materials in an environmentally friendly way. The real risk here is that the bottle deposit scheme will hold back environmental progress despite the good intentions behind it. 

As the UK scheme is designed to dovetail with the packaging producer responsibility, incentivising companies to use more recycled materials, it’s possible that this system is the answer to Germany’s problem.  

How Could Local Councils be Affected?

Most local councils run a recycling scheme collecting recyclable plastics. Some, like Manchester City Council, only collect plastic bottles. So how would a bottle deposit scheme change the current set up for councils?

This question can be largely and vaguely answered with 2 words: it depends. 

On the one hand, collecting, sorting and selling recyclables can produce an income for local councils. Naturally, this depends on the kind of material they are collecting, the going rates and how much recyclable waste they can recover through their scheme. Setting up a recycling collection service, not to mention running the sorting centre, does cost a lot, though. So where is the balance?

We contacted the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to find out more.

For GMCA, the balance is in offsetting the cost of energy from waste plants with the sale of recyclable materials including glass glass bottles and jars, plastic bottles, aluminium and steel cans. These materials are currently collected at kerbside so a bottle deposit scheme would naturally have a negative impact on the GMCA as the number of saleable materials would decrease but the cost of collection and energy from waste would remain the same. However, GMCA does support a DRS for on-the-go recycling which targets drinks beverages mainly bought out of the home. The hope here is that the DRS would encourage recycling and lead to a decrease in littering.

Whether a council profits from their recycling scheme is key here. For some councils, a bottle deposit scheme would actually save them money because they aren’t covering the costs of collecting and sorting waste materials through sales. For other councils, where the sale of the material generates a profit, this profit will be lost. 

But there’s more to consider. Many councils spend a significant sum on street cleaning, including litter picking, each year. By reducing the amount of litter on the streets, councils could save a fair bit on street cleaning services. So, while a council may lose an income from the recyclables they collect, this may be negated by the money they save on litter picking. 

Conclusion

It is clear that there is still a lot to consider when it comes to designing a municipal waste collection system that works. One of the major issues right now is that each council collects different things so there is no coherent plan across the UK for waste collection. A bottle deposit scheme could be the beginning of a more comprehensive national solution. 

If nothing else the bottle deposit scheme should educate people on the value of their waste. There is a lot of complex economics at work with this system but ideally, large plastic packaging producers should also start contributing more to the waste they are responsible for. Continuing to place the burden of correct disposal onto the individual without incentivising companies to give customers more environmentally friendly choices in the first place can only go so far in solving the environmental problems we face.

The UK desperately needs a better solution to drive up recycling rates and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill and energy reclamation. A bottle deposit scheme could be a great solution, but we need to continue to innovate and think creatively if we truly want to restore and repair our environment on a local and global scale.

Hannah Field

Author Hannah Field

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