Banking on bottles, UK debuts recycling return scheme

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29 Mar 2018 --- England will introduce a deposit return system (DRS) on all plastic, glass and metal drinks containers, the UK minister for the Environment, Michael Gove has announced. Such schemes have successfully been running in neighboring countries Germany and Sweden and Scotland announced a similar plan last year. These schemes have managed to boost collection rates for beverage packaging to over 90 percent in some states. The announcement has been met with positive feedback amid concerns over the potential costs of implementation.

The proposed DRS will see UK shoppers having to pay more for single-use beverage packages, 22p, in an attempt to limit environmental waste and littering and boost recycling. Upon return, the consumer would have the money reimbursed.

Now, just 43 percent of the 13 billion plastic bottles sold each year in the UK are recycled, and 700,000 are littered every day. In Germany, a DRS was introduced in 2003 and 99 percent of plastic bottles there are recycled state Zero Waste Europe.

Click to Enlarge
Zero Waste Europe depiction of EU countries
with DRS, or considering DRS

FoodIngredientsFirst spoke to Ariaena Rodrigo, sustainable products campaigner from Zero Waste Europe, who stated, “This is a very positive step in achieving a high collection of packaging items.”

The announcement follows a stream of UK Government initiates that have sought to tackle the nation's waste, with a focus on plastic pollution. First came the carrier bag charge, followed by a hardline ban on plastic microbeads in products. However, research conducted by the Green Alliance states that these initiatives only account for 2 percent of the nation’s plastic use, yet a collection scheme would, they assert, be the single most effective measure to reduce plastic pollution in the seas.

Rodrigo states that the success of similar schemes in neighboring countries is a positive sign that we must follow suit: “Just because a manufacturer puts a recyclable bottle on the market, does not mean it won’t end up as waste or in the sea. With a collection scheme, the customer has a financial incentive to return their packaging, which ensures a high collection rate.”

However, questions have been raised about the potential cost of implementing DRS. The British Retail Consortium has speculated that the scheme could cost £900million – £1billion to install the necessary “reverse vending machines” at stores across England.

Within these speculations over the scheme, key issues include who would pay for the installation, where would the “machines” be installed and, would customers be obligated only to return items bought from specific stores to the same, specific, store.

Along these lines, grocery giant Tesco, speaking to other media outlets, showed support for the DRS, yet kept in mind the concern around cost: “We support a cost-effective deposit return system and are working with a number of partners to explore how this can operate at scale. DRS is one part of the holistic approach that is needed to reduce waste and increase recycling in the UK.”

The necessity for a nation-wide scheme that tackles plastic beyond plastic carrier bags and microbeads has been urgently called for in recent times. This has been intensified amid tense media coverage of increasing plastic pollution and waste in our marine environments, and the high instances of microplastics being discovered in our immediate environments, i.e our drinking water. 

However, research from Zero Waste Europe finds that DRS schemes in multiple countries may actually help municipalities save money by lowering the volume of household waste to be managed. This is in terms of reductions in pick up frequency, the need for sorting and disposable facilities such as incinerators and landfills, and reducing the need for street cleaning. These levels could even be reduced by 50 percent. A reduced cost for municipalities means a reduced cost for taxpayers, they claim.

Plastics have been high profile in the media recently. FoodIngredientsFirst has reported on these stories, including the now infamous New Orb media microplastics in bottled water study, and sustainable packaging initiatives by Iceland and the Waste Free Oceans and Henkel partnership, as well as following attempts at eradicating plastic entirely from the supply chain.

By Laxmi Haigh

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