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Would a deposit return scheme in Scotland increase recycling?

Ah, the good old days. You bought a pint of milk, you kept the bottle, and you got money back when you returned it. Could the system work in today’s world and help boost the recycling of beverage containers?

 Chiara Francavilla

When I met Scottish environment secretary Richard Lochhead, he told me he thought so (MRW’s Big Interview with Lochhead is coming up on 16 November). He said that, at present, only 26% of plastics bottles and 24% of aluminium cans were recycled north of the border. 

“It is important that we drive up both the quantity and quality of recyclable materials collected in Scotland, preferably reprocessing them here as well,” he said. He has asked Zero Waste Scotland to launch a feasibility study to determine whether a deposit return scheme would offer that.

Nostalgic? Visionary? Lochhead has pointed out that such a system is working perfectly in other countries such as Sweden.

But not many other industry people are convinced. Some say that copying continental initiatives would not necessarily work. Others argue that such a system would introduce additional costs while only marginally improving recycling in comparison to the current local authority-based collection system. And some are committed to studying alternative approaches (see box page 16).

The proposal is in its infancy and there are many details yet to be refined. How much to charge? Where to collect? Would it be a government-led mandatory system or would private bodies be allowed to collect containers? International examples indicate there is a wide range of possibilities. 

Would a deposit return scheme in Scotland increase recycling?


Jonathan Short, deputy chairman at ECO Plastics:

Introducing a deposit scheme in the UK is nothing short of madness.

While it is true that kerbside collection may have developed in a somewhat disjointed manner, it has been highly successful in engaging the public and in significantly increasing the amount of material recycled. It is also true that quality has suffered during this growth phase, but that is mainly due to ill thought through policies such as the push for mixed plastics, instigated without the necessary reprocessing infrastructure being in place.

What is now desperately needed is a drive for quality ahead of quantity, and this means full adoption of the MRF Code of Practice, and reform of the PRN system to ensure domestic reprocessors are able to operate from a level playing field. Rather than waste money on the introduction of a deposit scheme I would much rather see investment in a simple, consistent and clear Local Government communication campaign targeting the consumer.


Dan Cooke, director of external affairs at Viridor:

“While the Scottish Government is right to focus on enhanced recycling and recovering energy from what remains, I believe the case for deposit return has yet to be made.

As Scotland’s leading glass recycler investing in next- generation glass technology, Viridor is focused on delivering the Government’s objective of driving quality material to remelt.

That said, with a well-developed national collections infrastructure that will continue to require funding, moves to introduce additional costs and bureaucracy risk increasing burdens on councils and business for relatively little gain.”


Chris Dow, chief executive at Closed Loop Recycling:

Incentives can play a major role in encouraging recycling but deposit schemes are difficult to implement . While a few pence on a bottle will encourage some to recycle, others will not take the bait.

The required infrastructure to implement a bottle deposit scheme would be immense and the required investment high in the current times of austerity. That said, it is good to see that the Scottish Government is continuing to place recycling high on its political agenda and a discussion of this nature is worth having.  

But, ideally, Scotland should be continuing to support the expansion of the UK’s recycling infrastructure, which has been successfully developed to receive materials from kerbside collections, and work towards increasing capture rates in Scotland.


Nick Brown, associate director of recycling at Coca-Cola Enterprises GB:

We are concerned that a deposit return scheme will be overly complex and establish a parallel system [to local authorities’ collection]. A deposit scheme on drinks packaging has no impact on wider packaging.

It does not encourage design for recycling nor the use of recycled materials.We would like to see changes in the producer responsibility system that better encourages the use of recycled materials.

Things have moved on from the days of a deposit scheme on drinks packaging – in the past there were few council household collections and not so many packaging materials. But this does not mean that retaining valuable resources isn’t the right approach. 

Around 60% of materials are already captured for recycling. But more can be done. We want to work with councils, waste firms and Zero Waste Scotland on how to improve recycling rates: how to inspire householders to recycle more materials more often.


Jane Bickerstaffe, director at INCPEN - The Industry Council for research on Packaging & the Environment

A deposits return scheme would not necessarily increase the recycling of beverage containers. It depends on how consumers respond to it – on whether they are willing to take containers back or forfeit the 10/20p or whatever deposit. 

What it certainly does is divert some material from existing collection systems into a parallel one. Also, local authorities will lose income from the drinks containers they currently collect and the cost of household waste management is likely to increase.


The Environmental Services Association:

Deposit or incentive schemes such as those proposed in Scotland can play a role in encouraging greater public engagement in recycling.

However, it is worth noting that in Sweden, on which the Scottish proposals are being based, there is no national kerbside collection for all recyclables. 

There is ongoing industry debate, which the ESA is watching closely, as to the extent to which such schemes would actually impact on recycling rates in countries such as Scotland, which have already put in place extensive services for collecting recyclable material from households. 


Ray Georgeson, chief executive at the Resource Association:

There is no doubt that a full feasibility study for a deposit return scheme in Scotland is an interesting development and one the RA will be keen to follow.

The conditions for deposit schemes vary from country to country. Their usefulness depends on the packaging mix, local traditions, existing recovery systems, local collection and recycling targets and the general waste and resources policy framework.

They can assist in achieving high collection rates of packaging at reasonable costs, improving eco-efficiency of recovery schemes, delivery of high-quality recyclate, litter reduction and encourage consumer participation. 

But there may be confusion among consumers, depending on recovery schemes already in place. And in mature markets with extensive local collection schemes, deposit return may add to the net carbon cost of beverage packaging collection. The question is whether this will be offset by better quality and fewer losses in reprocessing.

Clearly, the case needs to be made more fully for a mandatory deposit scheme; for such a scheme to work, it will need the support of the entire beverage value stream.


Simon Ellin, chief executive at the Recycling Association:

From my understanding of schemes in other countries, a deposit return scheme should have a positive effect on increasing recycling. I can see a strong link between a deposit return scheme and decreases in litter and it would have a positive effect on our throw away culture, particularly with children, who, like I did as a child, could see a way of supplementing their pocket money.

However, it is very important that any such schemes should take into account what other projects are currently on offer in a particular area.

It could be a counterproductive and indeed operationally, economically and environmentally damaging if a highly concentrated deposit return scheme was introduced into an area that already has a kerbside and/or a high density collection bank system already in place. In my experience, what fits well for the continent does not always necessarily fit well in the UK – if it is brought in, it must be with proper consultation and in partnership with the relevant bodies already operating recycling services.


Convention of Scottish Local Authorities:

All of Scotland’s 32 local authorities are committed to the Scottish Government’s Zero Waste Plan, and COSLA has expressed its desire to work with Zero Waste Scotland on their feasibility study of deposit and return schemes in Scotland, to ensure that it gives appropriate consideration to existing and planned local authority services.



UK Deposit Alliance, part of the Campaing to Protect Rural England (CPRE):

There is no doubt that a UK-wide deposit refund system would increase recycling. By placing a financial value on an item, the incentive to return it and secure the refund ensures that people’s behaviour is modified and a significantly greater amount of material
is returned.

Crucially, the quality of the materials received from the scheme is greater than that achieved by other existing recycling methods, therefore increasing the revenue received from its processing.

In turn, this increase in quality materials requires more jobs within the UK’s recycling industry to deal with the greater amount of feasible recyclate, which the CPRE’s research indicated could equal a net gain of more than 4,000 new jobs across the UK.

By providing a user-friendly incentive-based system, a deposit refund scheme also significantly reduces litter, thereby reducing litter clearance costs, unnecessary pollution of our land and marine environments, and damaging impacts on our wildlife.





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