The wait is (kind of) over for a UK bottle deposit scheme

plastic bottles 3It’s been almost six months since Michael Gove made an unofficial announcement that England would soon benefit from some sort of deposit scheme, a system where a small fee is applied to drinks containers at the point of sale, which can later be reclaimed. Shortly after that unofficial announcement, the government launched a comprehensive call for evidence, which concluded in November last year.

The delay between the call for evidence closing and the announcement of the scheme can partly be explained by the sheer volume of material government will have had to sift through. It will also have had to carefully consider factors including whether or not a deposit scheme could be successfully introduced alongside England’s well established kerbside recycling scheme. (It doesn’t necessarily have to undermine funding for local authority waste services, but the combination is fairly unique in the history of deposit schemes).

Nonetheless, the delay was slightly unnerving for organisations like Green Alliance, as we have long promoted the potential benefits such a scheme could offer. Campaigning groups like Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society, and CPRE – fellow members of the Break Free from Plastics Coalition – did a great job making the public case for such a scheme.

Now the wait is over as, this morning, Michael Gove confirmed there would definitely be a bottle deposit scheme in England, with a formal consultation on proposals to follow later in the year.

This is extremely welcome news because a well designed scheme will almost certainly achieve three things:

1. It will, most significantly, tackle the single largest stream of plastic packaging entering the seas from our shores. Our research has suggested that drinks bottles account for a third of marine plastic litter that gets into the sea from developed nations. Successful schemes, such as that in Norway, achieve packaging recycling rates for plastics (and the other materials covered) approaching 100 per cent.

2. Nearly as significant will be the increase in the quality of material collected. Thanks to effective separation at source (via the reverse vending machines that Gove says will definitely form part of the system), material will be of much higher quality than that currently collected from many kerbside systems. Material collected by local authorities is often contaminated by unwanted materials which hinders recycling.

3. It will have a knock on benefit to domestic recyclers  who often struggle to obtain material of high enough quality to reprocess in the UK. Businesses have too often been saddled with contaminated materials, which affects their bottom line and has been implicated in the failure of several world-leading UK plastic recyclers. Without having to deal with contamination (and pay to landfill or incinerate those unwanted materials) the economics of recycling stand up much better.

We need a comprehensive scheme
This isn’t to say that a successful scheme, delivering all these benefits, is in the bag. The devil will, as always, be in the detail. Concerns are already circulating in the environmental community that the scheme might only apply to the small bottles and cans used ‘on the go’, and not to all drinks containers, or that the scheme might be voluntary on some level, only applying to some retailers. This would be a mistake, as to be truly effective the scheme must be comprehensive.

There are parallels here with the plastic bag charge. Unlike the devolved administrations, England initially only applied the charge to large stores. Eventually, it realised universal coverage was the only way to achieve policy’s desired outcome and announced its extension to all shops. In this instance, we hope the government will go for maximum ambition rather than ‘retrofitting’ to improve it later.

This should also involve co-ordinating with the devolved nations: Scotland has announced it will institute a scheme and Wales and Northern Ireland are said to be considering plans for their own. Therefore, it would be best to introduce a scheme that is geographically comprehensive.

Reducing plastic consumption
In any case, deposit return schemes can never solve all the problems inherent in our current use of plastics. There is little evidence that it would reduce overall plastic consumption, for instance, and some established schemes – such as those in Belgium and Germany – have coincided with increases in single use containers to the detriment of refillables. Other policies are needed to tackle these problems in a holistic way.

There’s no question that this is a step in the right direction. Here’s hoping the momentum only picks up from here to deal with the other sources of marine plastic – from the UK and the rest of the world – that the government has also promised to address.

[Image: A Pollock action painting? Tibet recycles…, Carsten ten Brink via Flickr Creative Commons]

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