Bringing back a vision

I spent 24 hours in Sweden last week accompanying the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead on a few of his engagements on his fact finding trip to some of the Nordic nations. 

Written By Iain Gulland - Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland  |  26 Aug 13

On our programme was a visit to Returpack, the Swedish company who run the country’s deposit return scheme for drinks cans and plastic bottles.  On the way to their plant outside of Stockholm, I was telling Mr Lochhead the latest news about our Litter Week of Action and as we’re enjoying the view of somewhere none of us have been before, we all suddenly go silent and realise that the roadside view is completely absent of any litter – mile after mile after mile. Like any good mystery we were all guessing why this might be; trading theories and noting the irony to our own, necessary week of action at home. 

The mystery was quickly solved on our arrival at Returpak where our hosts Erik and Joakim informed us that Sweden’s deposit return scheme established in 1984 for cans and extended to PET in 1994 was in response to the populations’ frustration with their beautiful countryside being trashed. Erik goes onto explain that the scheme has not only solved the problem of roadside litter but interestingly, has provided a solid foundation for high recycling rates and closed-loop dynamics, and over and above this, achieved a wider public awareness of the need for collective responsibility on other environmental issues. 

The debate on the impact of deposit return schemes on litter is one I am familiar with. From what I saw in Sweden, the link is not only compelling but also quite unsettling. In Scotland there’s an average of seven cans and bottles discarded per 100 metres of road. I couldn’t help but think that if everyone was seeing what I saw in Sweden, the demand for change in Scotland would be palpable. 

And there’s something else that drew me in. There is definitely a connection between the mass participation by the public in taking back their bottles and cans for their deposit and their sense of place in the safeguarding and protection of the environment. The State Secretary for the Environment, Anders Flanking, whom we met after our site visit talked of the environmental awareness of the 1960s and ‘70s finding its outlet through the deposit scheme, which he says has grown with the awareness of more overarching issues such climate change, green consumerism, and global citizenship to represent something more than tackling litter in the public consciousness. Deposit return is not a nostalgic throwback to a time of innocence and idealism. It is an important touchstone the Minster wants to develop further as part of Sweden’s strategy around the circular economy and green jobs. 

As I travelled back, I thought about how our Zero Waste journey here in Scotland perhaps needs such a game changer: a consistent, national, behavioural activity that can provide a focus for the population to act together. A deposit return scheme could well be that thing. That key to unlock greater possibilities for Scotland. 

As it turns out, I was not the only one to bring back more than a postcard and a copy of the in-flight magazine. I very much welcome that the Cabinet Secretary was inspired by the Swedish example and brought back a vision for Scotland, making an announcement to go beyond our Recycle and Reward scheme and examine the feasibility of a national scheme. We’re very keen to build understanding of how a scheme might work and how this could deliver benefits for zero waste.

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