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What could a deposit return scheme look like in Britain?

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The UK uses 38.5 million plastic bottles every day – and 15 million of them are not recycled.

Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, announced in March that the government will introduce a deposit return scheme for single-use drinks containers. A consultation on how this would work in England is expected later this year.

A bottle deposit return scheme (DRS) encourages the collection of used drinks containers for recycling and reuse. The customer pays a small sum on top of the retail price when they buy a bottled or canned drink, which is then refunded when the container is returned to a collection point. When it is returned the bottle can be refilled or sent for recycling; the choice depends on the type of bottle and the design of the scheme.

In its 25-year environment plan the government promised to cut all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.

To reach this goal we must both reduce plastic packaging and reuse as much as possible. A deposit return scheme for bottles in the UK would not just spur on recycling, but encourage greater use of reusable bottles too.

If the government is serious about tackling unnecessary plastic, it could grade the scheme by setting low deposit rates for reusable bottles and higher ones for bottles that are harder to recycle, to incentivise consumers to purchase the refillables. Retailers also have a part to play – stores should be required to accept at least the same type of bottles they sell, and every vending machine should have a return point.

While the UK has been late to consider deposit return schemes, the good news is that we now know what works overseas. Other countries have been implementing successful schemes for decades, proving what’s possible for the UK.

For example, the US state of Oregon has had a ‘Bottle Bill’ since 1972, which requires almost every drinks container to carry a deposit. Three years after the bill came into effect, there were 50-70% fewer bottles littering the roadside.

Since 1993, manufacturers in Germany have been responsible for reclaiming, refilling and recycling their own packaging. A deposit of €0.25 was put on all single-use containers in 2003, with voluntary deposits on refillables implemented by industry. A whopping 98.5% of all plastic bottles was recovered in 2011.

And entrepreneurs in Colombia introduced an automated return scheme called Ecobot in 2016, which offers discount coupons for local businesses in exchange for plastic bottles. In a country where only 17% of all waste is processed, 147,000 bottles were collected in the first year and a half alone.

Refillable, deposit return schemes – where the returned bottles are reused rather than recycled – are usually better for the environment than single-use, linear ones. Reusable containers generally produce less greenhouse gases, less packaging waste and, once up and running, can see returns of up to 100%.

Single-use deposit systems can also result in high collection rates – more than 80% on average internationally. But because the containers are made of plastic they can only be recycled a few times before being incinerated, releasing carbon dioxide and toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, or going to landfill where they will exist for centuries or find their way into the sea.

European law has shaped the design of deposit return schemes. It rules that any measures to protect the environment cannot limit trade among EU countries in a disproportionate way. Two landmark cases (the Danish Bottles Case and Radlberger and Spitz vs. Land Baden‐Württemberg) set out the rules for a deposit return scheme:

  • It cannot ban single-use packaging
  • It should apply equally to national products and products from other EU states
  • The EU country implementing the DRS must ensure that there are enough return points in place
  • There must be a smooth transition that all producers can participate in

If the UK is to cut avoidable plastic waste by 2042, it must follow other countries’ example and introduce a deposit return scheme designed in a way that will help people reuse packaging and curb single-use plastic.

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