What are deposit return schemes and are they effective?
It is undeniable that litter is a major issue for our environment, causing a variety of problems for wildlife and human health. Some of the most littered items are related to drinks, including plastic and glass bottles, aluminium cans, lids, and more. Every year the UK is estimated to go through 14 billion plastic bottles and 9 billion cans. The results of 2022’s Great British Beach Clean found these items on 93% of our beaches, many of which could have been transported via our rivers. A deposit return scheme (DRS) incentives recycling and helps move towards a more circular economy through a small refund. Initially, consumers are charged slightly more when purchasing a drink in a single use container and this cost is then redeemed when the container is returned. This is often done through a “reverse vending machine” where bottles and other items can be deposited, and the refund collected.
11 countries in Europe have implemented deposit return schemes and they have shown great results with return rates between 82% in Estonia and 98% in Germany. Slovakia became the 11th country to roll out a DRS in January 2022 and an article reported that it had facilitated the return of 100 million plastic bottles and metal cans in the first five months of its operation. An incentive of at least 20p per item deposited has been found to drive behaviour change.
What’s coming to the UK?
January’s announcement saw deposit return schemes to be rolled out across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland from 2025 with Scotland planning to implement theirs later this year. The government claims that they hope the scheme ensures 85% fewer drink containers are discarded as litter after three years of its launch. This will involve the “reverse vending machines” mentioned above, as well as designated points where people can return their bottles and cans and receive their cash back. In the lead up to 2025, the focus is on creating the required legislation and infrastructure.
Whilst this is welcomed news and we are pleased to see DRS being introduced across the UK, there are a few concerns. Primarily with the inconsistencies between the UK nations and the lack of glass bottles being included in the DRS in England. Currently, the schemes in Scotland and Wales will include glass bottles but the DRS in England will not. Given their abundance in our rivers and on our beaches, the scheme cannot be fully effective without including glass bottles.
Fundamentally, despite the delay, the implementation of deposit return schemes across the UK is a positive step towards reducing our litter problem and improving our recycling rate. It will be interesting to see the effectiveness of the scheme in Scotland after it rolls out this year and we hope to see glass bottles included in the English DRS.