Will a deposit return scheme work for the UK?

A deposit return scheme encourages consumers to recycle drink bottles and other containers through a monetary deposit upon purchase or cash rewards upon recycling. Such systems already exist in a number of countries, but will it work for the UK? Deborah Williams finds out.

Scotland is the only part of the UK that currently has a deposit return scheme (DRS), but some UK-based companies and organisations are conducting DRS trials to encourage sustainability and explore the practicalities of the approach.

The 2019 Wimbledon Tennis Championship, for instance, took sustainability to a higher level with its first reverse vending machine for recycling plastic bottles, provided by Norwegian multinational recycling solutions corporation Tomra.

In summer 2019 Tomra also partnered with UK retailer Co-op to improve sustainability at festivals with a DRS trial using reverse vending machines at Co-op pop-up stores at seven major UK music festivals.

Meanwhile, UK-based restaurant chain Leon has partnered with French transnational waste, water and energy management company Veolia to launch scheme facilitating on-the-go recycling. The DRS, which was unveiled at London’s King’s Cross station, accepts plastic bottles and aluminium cans. For each one deposited, customers receive a voucher for 10% off at the nearest Leon restaurant.

In the retail sector, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s launched a reverse vending recycling trial at its Lincoln Superstore in the East Midlands. The retailer later trialled the system at its Braehead Superstore in Glasgow, Scotland.

The DRS opposition

In April 2019, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) called for the UK Government to scrap its proposed DRS due to high costs as laid out in a report by IEA head of lifestyle economics Christopher Snowdon.

The report stated that the running costs of the government’s DRS for drinks cans and bottles make it a very expensive way to achieve very little. The scheme, it was pedicted, would cost around £1bn to set up and £814m per year thereafter, to collect recyclables worth just £37m.

In addition, according to the Deposit Return Schemes in Action case study by plastics recycling charity Recoup, if a DRS were introduced in the UK, the collection and recycling of non-drinks packaging would need to be transformed to meet future circular economy goals.

Does DRS have a future in the UK?

However, the DRS operating in Scotland reportedly has the potential to keep around 31,000 plastic bottles off Aberdeen’s streets, beaches and green spaces, according to recent figures from environmental body Zero Waste Scotland. In addition, around 72% of people would support the introduction of a DRS in the UK, according to a recent survey revealed by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and issued by YouGov.

So far, the UK Government has received 1,180 responses and 207,089 campaign responses for its most recent DRS consultation held in early 2019. It said it will seek to introduce legislation for a DRS for drinks containers in England and Wales via the Environment Bill, which is a part of its 25 Year Environment Plan.

If a nationwide drinks DRS were to be implemented in the UK, it would include drinks containers such as glass bottles, plastic bottles and cans.

The government said that the cost of the deposit would be added to the price of the drinks included in the scheme when they are purchased. The deposit would then be redeemed when consumers return their empty drinks containers to a designated return point.

Further consultations on the proposed idea and model of the DRS are expected to take place in 2020, with the intention to start the scheme no later than 2023.

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