A recent groundbreaking announcement by the UK government is set to pave the way for a Deposit Return Scheme on single-use glass bottles, plastic bottles, steel cans and aluminium cans.

This will, of course, increase the price of the bottles and cans at the checkout but it is also expected to dramatically reduce waste pollution whilst significantly boosting our lacklustre recycling rates.

Anyone old enough will remember that during their childhood, schemes like this were often available for glass bottles, typically for drinks like lemonade and soda. Nowadays, in the throw-away, disposable world that we currently live in, this concept is a rarity in the UK.

How will it work?

Whilst the concept of the modern-day Deposit Return Scheme is still in its infancy and nothing concrete has yet been decided, the idea is that consumers will get money back if they return the bottle or can. In other words, whilst the product will cost more, this will be offset once the container is returned for recycling.

Other European countries already have similar Deposit Return Schemes in place. For example, in Germany the price is 22p and in Sweden it’s 8p. This has led to a significant increase in recycling rates for both countries. In Scotland, plans have already been announced for a Deposit Return Scheme and Welsh ministers say they want to see the plan rolled out across all of the UK. Northern Ireland is also said to be looking at the scheme more closely as well.

In other places around the globe, there are already many examples of Deposit Return Schemes of one kind or another in action. Around 40 countries already have a scheme, whilst in the US, nearly half (21) of all the States have some kind of Deposit Return Scheme, mainly for plastic bottles.

One of the catalysts for renewed interest in the scheme was the broadcast of Blue Planet II, hosted by Sir David Attenborough. The popular series highlighted the growing menace of ocean pollution whilst showing the saddening, real-world example of wildlife actually eating plastic.

Spurred into action, Environment Secretary Michael Gove was quoted as saying there was no doubt that plastic was wreaking havoc on the wildlife population in seas and oceans around the world. He added:

“We have already banned harmful microbeads and cut plastic bag use, and now we want to take action on plastic bottles to help clean up our oceans. We need to see a change in attitudes and behaviour and the evidence shows that reward and return schemes are a powerful agent of change.”

He also cited the 5p levy put on plastic carrier bags, which has cut consumption by 83%.

One of the more efficient ways of implementing the new system will most likely involve returning bottles and cans to an automated recycling machine, where depositors can get their refund. It could also involve an over-the-counter option where shoppers can return the items to shops that participate in the Deposit Return Scheme.

There is some confusion regarding who will actually benefit financially from the increase in the price of products at the point of sale. Bearing in mind that some users will choose to just throw their empty bottles and cans in the bin.

It seems that different countries have different mechanisms for this. In some, the producer or retailer will benefit whilst in others, the extra money is given to charity or returned to a centralised operator of the system for future investment in it.

How much will it cost to set up in the UK?

According to the British Plastics Federation, it could cost as much as £1billion to set up, with an additional £1billion to actually run it every year.

A Norweigan comparison

Spurred on by the Norwegian government’s introduction of a tax on un-recycled bottles, a Deposit Return Scheme was set up by the country’s drinks industry, which installed machines in shops where consumers who returned items would get a redeemable coupon. The scheme has been heralded as a success as it’s claimed that there is now a 94% recycling rate for bottles made from PET, which is commonly used for water bottles and fizzy drinks.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

If you’ve never heard of it, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area of ocean situated between Hawaii and California which contains an enormous amount of floating plastic debris. It’s the largest accumulation of floating plastic on the planet measuring 1.6 million square kilometres and is estimated to be the three times the size of France. Current calculations estimate that it contains 1.8 trillion separate pieces of plastic which, over time, will break down into dangerous microplastics due to the effects of the waves and sun. All this plastic is said to weigh around 80,000 tonnes and is the equivalent of 250 pieces for every human on the planet. As depressing as these stats are, a cleanup operation is said to be beginning sometime this year in 2018.

Director of the British Plastics Federation, Barry Turner, notably said in a recent BBC radio interview that the main reason people don’t dispose of their plastic containers in the right way was due to the lack of infrastructure in place to make it more convenient for them and added “I think that’s one of the big challenges.”

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