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Beat the bottle

If you're that way inclined, there are many places you can see the results of our bad habits with used drinks containers, largely because people aren’t selective about where they throw them. The pavement, the gutter on your street, hedgerows along country lanes, roadside verges and your local waterways are all, sadly, good places to spot these garish vessels.

So, with more than 24 billion drinks containers being sold in the UK every year, why don’t we do everything we can to capture these errant bottles and cans and magically turn them into new bottles and cans?

Deposit return systems - what are they?

Many countries and provinces around the world have found the best way to capture drinks containers is by having a deposit return system (DRS). The scheme is simple: when you buy a drink, you pay a small deposit (10-20p) and then, when you take the container back, you get your deposit back. Readers with longer memories might even recall the idea used for glass bottles back in the day. Thanks to the monetary incentive, such schemes wield an unrivalled return rate of between 70-98.5% with an associated reduction in other container litter of up to 80%. We currently recycle less than 50% in the UK. But we’ve already seen what a relatively small economic incentive can do here in England – the 5p charge on plastic bags led to an 85% drop in its first six months alone!

The success of deposit return systems in boosting recycling and reducing litter overseas have not gone unnoticed and we’ve seen much high profile support. Just last month Sky PLC launched its #OceanRescue campaign, with one of the core recommendations being a series of UK-wide deposit return systems for plastic bottles – endorsed by celebrities such as Prince Charles and Richard Branson.

We have ourselves looked into the matter in depth over the years, with our research – both into the costs and benefits and into how many jobs would be created - coming out highly in favour of DRS and showing exactly how a UK system could be introduced – most importantly, at zero cost to you.

A major opponent

Seems a simple solution, right? In theory – yes. However, there is a big opponent of the scheme – the beverage industry. Brand owners, their bottlers and distributors and their trade associations spend millions of pounds globally trying to prevent further deposit schemes being introduced and attempting to get rid of the schemes that already exist. Coca Cola for example, which claims to be in favour of reducing its carbon footprint, was called out recently after a leaked internal document revealed they plan to ‘fight back’ against new DRS schemes.

Shortly afterwards, Coca-Cola announced that it thought a deposit system in Scotland could work well. This is obviously excellent news. It is also unprecedented in terms of it openly supporting a deposit scheme as, despite it being part of many systems around the world that work very well, it always says they don’t work.

Which begs the question - why is the beverage industry against it?

The simple answer could be that the beverage industry would rather you and I paid for the collection and disposal of the containers that it produces. Currently, we pay for our kerbside recycling schemes and we pay for our streets to be swept through our council tax. This is not so good for us but it’s very handy for an industry that likes to talk about producer responsibility and voluntary agreements – ‘yes, of course we must take responsibility for our products, just leave it to us’ – but actually, so it appears to me, prefers to peddle inaccuracies and promote arguments designed to convince the Government that deposit schemes don’t work. In reality, the message seems to be ‘we made the stuff and we’re going to produce ever increasing amounts of it but we prefer it when you pay to clear it up’.

A deposit return system neatly counters this by following what’s known as the ‘polluter pays’ principle. The scheme is paid for by the producers of the containers and those who don’t dispose of them properly – in other words, if the container is thrown away, the deposit is unclaimed so it stays within the system and helps to fund it.

Another company that has assessed the potential of deposit return systems is Suez Recycling and Recovery UK, part of the global waste giant Suez Environnment. Suez UK recently said that deposit systems are a ‘win win’ for the environment and the economy. This is also unprecedented in terms of a public statement and we are delighted that such an influential and experienced company as Suez UK has come to this conclusion.

Any remaining arguments needs to be further investigated, and luckily the Government’s Environmental Audit Committee has just launched an inquiry into drinks containers (and coffee cups) and what solutions could be implemented to prevent them being littered and landfilled. We would encourage anyone with an interest in this topic to make a submission to the inquiry. At a national level, we are hoping that it will encourage the packaging and beverage industries to be clearer about what their resistance actually is. Up until now, they’ve just talked about their concern for local councils and consumers but I think we’re able to speak for ourselves.

Our research estimated we could have a return rate of 90% in the UK. This is significant. Kerbside collections are generally successful (if you’re lucky enough to live in the type of housing that provides you with a kerb) but it’s fair to say that this system is still not capturing all the containers consumed at home because some still end up in black bags. And what happens to all the containers that never make it into our homes – the ones that are bought and consumed, as it’s termed, ‘on the go’? Many of them likely end up scattering our roads, parks, lakes, countryside and coastlines, forming an unattractive and dangerous plastic playground.

plastic bottle beach litter copyright maudanros Shutterstock 522pxx348px

A multitude of benefits

Besides the huge increase in recycling and the reduction in litter, there is a further benefit to DRS. When pollster Ipsos Mori asked people whether they would consider donating their deposit to a local charity, if given the opportunity to do so, a heart-warming 12% of people said they always would. With an average deposit of 15p, that would see local communities receive over £432 million every year. And that’s without the deposits from the 66% who said they would donate some or most of the time.

Ultimately, there are a number of reasons why a deposit refund scheme should be introduced – and I support them all. Reducing litter (which costs us nearly a billion pounds every year to clear up), increasing the amount and quality of packaging that’s recycled, reducing the costs of household waste collections, creating jobs and, ultimately, having the cost of dealing with drinks containers met by those who produce them and litter them.

Next time you see a littered can or bottle, just think to yourself ‘that wouldn’t be there if we had a deposit scheme’. And sadly, until it is introduced, you’ll be surprised by how many times you find yourself thinking that every day.


This entry was originally published on 6th February 2017 and updated on 6th March 2017.

Find out more

How a deposit return system works

Have we got the bottle? (CPRE summary report on DRS)

Read more about our work on litter 

View Sam's profile

With more than 24 billion drinks containers being sold in the UK every year, why don’t we do everything we can to capture these errant bottles and cans and magically turn them into new bottles and cans?

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