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A deposit with returns for us all

Today I helped launch various new schemes to test how container deposits and ‘reverse vending’ systems might work in Scotland.

Written By Iain Gulland - Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland  |  21 Feb 13

The aims of these trials are to understand public acceptance of such schemes and the impact they might have in terms of increasing recycling rates and the quality of materials deposited as well as seeing whether they help prevent litter. I’ve talked up the importance of these trials over the past year, not because I’m particularly pro-deposit return, but because I’m keen to have a debate about what the future might hold for recycling systems here in Scotland.  

I’ve been lucky to see deposit schemes in operation around the world.  In some areas they have helped recycling rates for packaging such as plastic bottles and cans reach 85%, compared with current rates in Scotland of less than 30%. Deposit schemes appear to engage with consumers in a way that many of our kerbside collections only dream about. Isn’t it time we wondered why?

But increasing recycling isn’t the full story. Quality of material is also important, especially if our priority is how to best benefit Scotland’s economy.

In Adelaide in Australia, I toured an aggregation centre for their deposit scheme that has been in place since the 1970s. There I witnessed bales of the highest quality plastics bottles, and cans. An established system for collecting plastic to such an obvious high quality would, I believe, strengthen the business case for plastics reprocessing facilities in Scotland, bringing investment and jobs as well as quality material recycled back into production. A report from Spain on a proposed deposit scheme there suggested that as many as 14,000 jobs could be created. What could a deposit system mean for Scottish jobs?

Of course I accept that there are counter arguments and potential consequences of  moving to a deposit scheme approach and I am, as ever happy, to debate these.  I think it is essential we continue to think about how we collect materials in order to develop our economy, not just for today but into the future.

Anyone who saw the History of Rubbish series on the BBC last year will know that collections systems have always evolved and I have a feeling that things will change again.  Of course, that might not just mean deposit schemes; it could also include shifting to service models, buying not leasing, or more retailer take-back schemes.

We are increasing our understanding of how important it is to look at the whole system in terms of resource supply and use.  The trials we launched today may or may not hold all of the answers, but at the very least they should ignite a debate on how systems might be re-thought to ensure we do get the most from our resources, just as we all believe we should.


As you are inviting debate on this , I'll try to explain why Scots will be misled with these initiatives: these ‘Recycle and Reward’ schemes offer people money back for recycling empty bottles and cans (glass, aluminium and plastic (PET) drinks containers) through incentives such as money back, discount vouchers or vouchers for donations to charities.

These projects open the way to implement in Scotland Deposit and Return Schemes for one way drinks packaging, similar to those in existence in Germany for the past ten years and the Nordic countries before that.

The reason why the public will be misled is that in a real Deposit and Return Scheme (DRS) such as the one which would be eventually implemented in Scotland, once consumers get used to the familiar sight of Reverse Vending Machines in their shopping areas, they will have to pay an extra price of (more or less) 10p-20p for every drinks package bought, and then bring the empty package back to get (with luck) their money back.

So in most of these schemes there is No Deposit (drinks do not pay a deposit fee) nor Return (no packages bought with deposit are returned). People may believe that they are paid for recycling but ultimately they will be not.

That's why calling this Deposit pilot schemes is misleading.

In the real case, this extra cost can be higher (e.g. a small size DOB product) than that of the drink itself including the package.

If the consumer breaks the package, crushes it, looses the label or produce any other damage, he/she will as well loose their money.

In fact these are not “reward” systems but “punishment” systems whereby consumers are obliged to bring their drinks packaging back to collect their money.

How do they work? The main income of DRS schemes is the money not returned back to the customers who could not or did not want to return their bottles or cans.

Second, they are not general systems, but discriminatory systems whereby some drinks packaging are collected (eg beer or soft drinks cans or bottles) and others are not (e.g. wine or liquor bottles or milk cartons)

While there is a genuine and clear intent of authorities to improve recycling, which should be welcomed, DRS are very expensive commercial schemes to install reverse vending machines, counting centres, etc. which benefit partially the environment but basically companies setting them up.

The fact that this is presented as something new to study and evaluate is also misleading: Defra did already do that a couple of years ago, (PB 13540 report) and these were the conclusions :

- The annual cost of a UK deposit system was estimated in a report for the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England at £1.4bn. Of this, £944m would fall to consumers in the form of uncollected deposits.
- Taking all of this into account, we have decided not to take the option of deposits forward for the time being, and concentrate on other ways to increase recycling and address litter.

Sounds like an excellent idea - anyone who grew up in the 1960s or 70s will remember taking glass 'pop' bottles back to their corner shop, where they would receive a few pence for each bottle. The bottles would then be returned to a depot to be cleaned, refilled and returned to retail outlets once more. Just goes to show that recycling isn't quite as 'new' as we thought!

Thanks for your response. We do want to encourage debate and don’t want to mislead anyone.

The purpose of our Recycle and Reward pilots trials is to test consumer attitudes and to better understand the impacts of these kinds of systems on quantity and quality of materials collected for recycling. The pilots cover a range of different contexts and materials, and include one ‘true’ deposit scheme as well as a number of reverse vending options. They are not intended to propose a model for how a deposit system might work in Scotland, nor do we have any plans to do that.

We will evaluate the pilots and share their findings with all interested stakeholders.

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