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Time for return of bottle deposits?

Recycling glass can save 80 per cent of raw materials mined and, with recycled aluminium saving 95 per cent of the energy it takes to make new aluminium, the impact in terms of energy costs and CO2 emissions can be considerable.

Sweden offers a world-leading example of how to deal with waste from drinks bottles and cans. Operated by Returpack, a recycling company co-owned by the drinks companies and brewers in Sweden, the Swedish deposit return scheme sees a small deposit added to the cost of drinks which is refunded when the container is returned.

Pelle Hjalmarsson, chief executive of Returpack, says a key element of the system is that it was introduced and managed by the different stakeholders working together. “Everybody had a very high interest in creating a well-functioning deposit system,” he says.

Implementation of the scheme has resulted in recycling rates of more than 90 per cent of its drinks containers. These are then made into new containers or, in the case of some of the plastic bottles, into clothing, bags and other goods.

There can be difficulties in the deployment of such a scheme, especially if there is push-back from retailers or producers. Clearly the ability to make manufacturers, fillers, packers and retailers work together has a critical role to play. In Britain, disagreements among the stakeholders about where the on-cost of recovery should be placed resulted in a compromise in UK packaging legislation.

The legislation sets percentage targets for the recovery of cardboard, glass, plastic and aluminium, and companies within the supply chain need to report a number of certificates or producer responsibility notes (PRNs) to regulators representing each year’s targets.

Litter rates would fall, our streets would be cleaner and recycling would increase dramatically

This shares the responsibility for recycling throughout the supply chain, rather than encouraging co-operation, while at the end of the chain waste management companies had no specific obligation for recycling. Effectively it created a market for PRNs which, combined with rising landfill tax, meant a greater push towards recycling, but not a holistic approach to reclamation.

There are three elements to the value of a bottle deposit scheme: the value of the materials retrieved themselves; fees to industry; and the value of unredeemed deposits. Allan Barton, Arup’s director and global leader, resources and waste management, says: “The beauty of reward schemes is that some people will act, some people won’t and that fraction will fund the programme.”

Mr Hjalmarsson admits that one of the biggest challenges can be consumer behaviour, especially outside the home. But, he says of the Swedes: “It’s in our blood to make deposits.” In the UK, as Will Griffiths of the Carbon Trust points out: “The challenge is consumer engagement and incentivising them sufficiently.”

In Europe alone, more than 100 million people live in countries with bottle deposit schemes, including Norway, Denmark, Finland and Estonia. Rauno Raul, chief executive of the Estonian Deposit System, says: “The advantage of a deposit system, compared to other alternative or parallel systems, is the fact that the monetary incentive – the deposit sum – guarantees very high collection rates. Deposit systems usually can collect from 80 to 96 per cent of input.”

The impact of such a scheme can move far beyond simply managing part of the waste stream. A 2010 report by Eunomia, for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), demonstrated that a drink container deposit refund scheme (DRS) would greatly reduce litter and increase recycling rates. Running costs of around 0.8p per container would be supported by revenue from unclaimed deposits.

Hopes for a UK DRS were hit in 2011 when the government’s review of waste policy identified the high cost of running such a scheme as a barrier to success. The Industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment argued that encouraging the use of existing recycling process through kerbside collection would be better value for money. However, this ignores the importance of behaviour outside the home.

Dominic Hogg, director of Eunomia, says: “At the moment, council tax payers meet the costs of recycling, clean-up of litter and landfill, irrespective of their purchases. But under a drinks container deposit refund scheme, the costs of dealing with beverage packaging would be met by industry and by those who forego their right to the refund of their deposit. Litter rates would fall, our streets would be cleaner and recycling would increase dramatically.”

Following the victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP) north of the border in 2013, Zero Waste Scotland ran a pilot scheme, which the group is now analysing to see what it would take to expand the project.

Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland’s director, says the SNP wanted to increase recycling rates, as well as the quality of recyclate, and to promote anti-litter campaigning. The pilot project consisted of ten sites, eight of which were reverse vending and two deposit return. He says that, while the report on the pilot will not be out until later this year, all the schemes were used and recycling rates increased.

“Our objective was to look at the impacts and at public acceptance,” he says. “While there were challenges, the pilot showed that rewarding people does work under certain circumstances.”

One of the big unknowns in the Eunomia study for CPRE was a monetary value for the disamenity or adverse impact of litter. A 2013 Eunomia study for Zero Waste Scotland on the indirect costs of litter showed that the disamenity value is higher than had previously been thought and so adds weight to the case for deposit systems.

As part of this work, Eunomia explored the links between litter and crime, and the effects of litter on mental wellbeing. Focusing solely on crime, the annual costs attributable to litter, for Scotland, were identified as being up to £22.5 million. For mental health and wellbeing, the study estimated attributable costs for Scotland to be £53 million.

While the recycling system in the UK has worked reasonably well, the growing focus on recovering resources has meant that materials recovery is happening at many different stages and it can be difficult when one particular stream is removed.

Peter Jones, director at Ecolateral, says: “The system is working, but it’s crying out for reform. If you’re in the waste industry, it’s no longer economic to put waste in landfill, so the remaining options are composting or anaerobic digestion, or thermo-chemical treatment.”

Mr Barton, at Arup, adds: “We need an integrated waste strategy that will work on an international scale.” What this means is that schemes such as Sweden’s bottle deposit approach could have an impact through reducing one waste stream and encouraging the exploitation of the remaining streams with a range of new technologies.

Estonia’s Mr Raul concludes: “The initiative has to come from the government side. That was the case in Estonia when the packaging and packaging excise law was introduced in 2004. It is very unlikely that producers or retailers would do something really serious in terms of recycling on their own. The state has to introduce and enforce a concrete framework of rules to get real results.”