What Does a Good Deposit Return Scheme Look Like?

You can’t ignore the debate on plastics and the environmental impact of the bottles and bags that are too often discarded into the countryside, waterways and oceans. One of my rules in working out how ACS should address policy challenges is to first step back and ask, “is this a real issue, are the people who are concerned about it justified in demanding action?” In this case, the answer to these questions is definitely “yes” (let me know if you disagree, but the evidence looks pretty compelling to me) so we should think about what local shops can do to help tackle this problem. Of course, it doesn’t automatically follow that any proposed solution is the right one, so we need to be as objective we can, and ask what will work and what that will mean for our members.

There are lots of component parts to any plan to tackle plastic waste, but the one I want to talk about here is a deposit return scheme, because this is currently the subject of detailed consultation by the Scottish Government which has already decided to introduce such a scheme and is now working out what it should look like.  

Firstly, we (in this case the Scottish Government) have to decide which products we’re talking about: just the small plastic drinks bottles that often end up in landfill, or all plastic bottles, or other materials too? The gap in current recycling is the packaging binned while on-the-go, so that should be our starting point, and once we’re introducing a system to collect these, it’s relatively easy to add metal cans to the system. The problem is, once you start talking about large plastic bottles, food tins and glass bottles, we risk removing some of this recyclable waste from the existing collections of waste from outside homes by local authorities, and that could undermine the viability of those collections, meaning they could become less frequent or more limited in scope.

Secondly, where do these products get returned to? Should it be to every store that sells them, which could mean lots of return points and quite an expensive system, or should we define a smaller number of return points? I think the best starting point is to analyse where people would want to return products and build the system from there. That means transport hubs, office buildings, and yes, some stores. There will have to be a decision made as this scheme gets developed: what’s the optimal number and location of outlets to control costs and maximise recycling?

I’ll declare our fairly obvious interest here: making small shops act as return points when they don’t have the space or, even worse, making them take back dirty packaging over the counter just isn’t feasible. Allowing small shops to apply to accept returns is fine, making them accept returns isn’t.

Finally (obviously, it’s not the final point, but let’s keep this as brief as we can) what’s going to be more effective: a scheme covering the whole of the UK, or different schemes in Scotland, England and Wales. In a market where product is manufactured and packaged for sale in all part so the UK, it’s pretty clear to me that one scheme will be far better than three.

We should keep our eyes on the prize here. A deposit return scheme is an opportunity to bring about significant benefits to our environment, and to do so through incentives and behaviour change rather than taxes and new regulatory burdens. It also presents a risk of making running a shop harder, and undermining the recycling systems we currently have. That’s why we’re engaging so actively in the Scottish Government’s work on this, and why we’ll do the same in the UK government’s upcoming consultation on a scheme in England. 

This entry was posted by Chloe on Mon, 24/09/2018 - 10:11