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Waste Not
Will Bottle Deposits Help or Hinder the UK’s War on Plastic?

With the public mood turning against plastic waste, British policymakers now have a new cause to rally behind.

With the public mood turning against plastic waste, British policymakers now have a new cause to rally behind. In the past few weeks, shopper protests against single-use plastics and packaging have been breaking out across the UK, while English cities such as Manchester and Gloucester have pledged to go ‘plastic free’ in the coming years.

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It could be argued that this sudden surge in anti-plastics sentiment, sparked by the BBC’s "Blue Planet II" series, couldn’t have come at a better time, given that waste policy – which has devolved in the UK – is undergoing something of a renaissance as it looks to detach itself from EU legislation post-Brexit.

Last week, the English Government (Defra) announced it would introduce a national deposit return scheme (DRS) for single-use drinks containers subject to a consultation. It’s the latest in a series of policy signals targeting plastics and complements Scotland’s earlier intention to roll out a DRS. Wales is also considering introducing a DRS.

Given the level of appetite from British policymakers for such a scheme, it would seem logical to design a DRS that covers the whole of the UK. But this might not happen, or at least not in a consistent manner. Perhaps mindful of this, Scotland’s Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has reportedly invited Defra and ministers from Wales and Northern Ireland to a summit to discuss the issue.

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If Scotland were to push ahead with a DRS first, one concern is that the scheme could immediately be subject to fraud. As each returned bottle would carry a value, there’s the possibility of cross-border trafficking of deposit-bearing containers in order to claim vast sums of cash.

Scottish drinks manufacturer AG Barr has been reported as saying it costs around £400 to move a lorry full of cans from England to Scotland, yet that lorry could feasibly carry over £30,000 worth of deposits. To counter this, containers produced or distributed in Scotland would need to carry special labels or barcodes showing they are part of a DRS, which could prove costly to implement.

Back in 2015, in a Scottish DRS call to evidence, Diageo estimated that the potential costs for changing stock keeping units (SKUs) alone, such as creating Scotland-specific SKUs, would be around £350,000: “When you include additional significant logistical, warehousing and labelling costs, this would cost millions of pounds for Diageo GB,” the company said in a statement.

Defra has stated that it hopes to “talk to the devolved administrations about the scope for working together on this important issue,” and that it will only take forward options that it can demonstrate resistance to fraud. Importantly, the DRS consultation will sit alongside a package of wider reforms on packaging waste and producer responsibility, which many sustainability experts believe is crucial to achieving success.

Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association, which represents the UK’s resource and waste management industry, told Sustainable Brands that the biggest priority is greater support for recycled material end markets, especially given the impact of Chinese restrictions on foreign waste imports.

“There is no point recovering all this material if there is nowhere for it to go, and particular consideration is needed for material left to be collected at the kerbside if a DRS system is introduced. Targets for recycled content in products and packaging would provide a welcome boost for the sector,” he said.

It’s a view shared by Libby Peake, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance: “It will be important to make sure markets are established here in the UK for this greater quantity of recycled material or it will be shipped abroad, from where it could still end up in the sea,” she said.

Some working in the public sector are also fearful that a DRS, unless it specifically targets on-the-go recycling, may have a detrimental impact on council kerbside collections. Local authorities are facing huge austerity pressures – a recent study from the UK’s National Audit Office found that government funding for English councils has almost halved over the past seven years, with average spend on waste collection services falling by one-fifth (21 percent) over this time.

Many councils can either generate income or offset their collection costs by collecting good-quality recyclables such as plastic bottles, but if a significant proportion of this tonnage was diverted through a DRS instead, councils could lose out.

“The evidence so far for the UK has not shown how a general DRS can be undertaken without cannibalising council kerbside material,” says Carole Taylor, chair of LARAC (the UK’s Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee). “If the public really have an appetite for DRS, then it needs to be one that targets on-the-go material and helps address the litter problem that local authorities spend £700 million each year dealing with.”

Opinion remains divided, however. Consultancy Eunomia, which has done extensive modelling work on how DRS schemes might work in the UK, published a study last year highlighting that local authorities across England could actually save up to £35 million each year if a DRS was introduced, and that any loss in revenue would be outweighed by reduced levels of littering and landfill charges.

“Our analysis of data across eight local authorities, including those with high and low recycling rates, found that rather than losing income, the individual authorities could potentially make savings of between £60,000 and £500,000,” the report states.

It goes without saying that any DRS must be well designed from the outset if it is to work within the wider context of national recycling and litter strategies. More challenging however is making the economics work, especially for recycled plastics where market demand remains relatively weak. That, almost certainly, will require more government intervention.