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Is UK packaging ready to see a reversal of fortune?

Reverse vending recycling machines, (RVMs) utilise advanced technology to identify, sort, collect and process used beverage containers such as PET plastic bottles and aluminium and steel cans ready for recycling. More than 35 billion used beverage containers are captured every year by RVMs around the globe.

RVMs encourage behavioural change: the person placing the container in the machine receives a reward for each item they recycle. By rewarding the user and encouraging recycling of used drink cans and plastic bottles, reverse vending significantly helps to increase participation and national recycling figures.

Reverse vending’s origins date back to the 1920s, when a patent application for ‘Empty Container Return and Handling Machinery’ was made in the US by Elmer M Jones and Sue Walker Vance as a means of providing a monetary return for containers deposited. In the late 1950s the first working RVMs were developed and released by Sweden-based manufacturer Wicanders.

In 1962 an advanced ‘Automatic Bottle Return Machine’ was designed by Aage Tveitan and manufactured in Norway by his company Arthur Tveitan ASA. And in 1972 Tomra started up with the development of a bottle recycling RVM (see box). Today there are estimated to be more than 100,000 RVMs installed worldwide.

Reverse vending maximises material value and quality because recyclate quality remains at the heart of a circular economy. The machines are capable of receiving and processing thousands of cans and bottles a week. They recognise and separate the materials and compact them to 90% of their original volume.

In most cases, RVMs are used in markets that have deposits on beverage containers, offering a highly efficient method of identifying the deposit amount of each container returned and providing a refund to the customer.

The RVMs not only recognise every container they receive, but they also use the latest GPRS telemetry to send an email to the waste management company when they are nearly full and need emptying. The telemetry system allows the host to see realtime recycling statistics of every drinks container received, every voucher dispensed and every charity donation received.

There is some opposition to deposit return in the UK by brand owners and retailers, which have formed a group named the Packaging Recycling Group Scotland (PRGS). Soft drinks manufacturer AG Barrs ended its deposit system last year citing lack of returns. The Campaign to Protect Rural England also pushed for a deposit system in the UK in 2013, but this failed.

The Reverse Vending Corporation (RVC) uses material recognition and high-tech recognition cameras/sensors. It is the first UK company to successfully introduce and install such technology into the UK and Irish Republic’s ‘non deposit’ market. RVC’s clients have access to more than 1,500 trained engineers in the UK for installation and maintenance.

So what’s next? Scotland is looking at implementing a deposit return scheme, and RVC and retailer Ikea have participated in the Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) ‘Recycle and Reward’ pilot at the company’s Edinburgh and Glasgow stores. Most Ikea outlets in the UK have machines from RVC to collect used light bulbs and portable batteries safely. It is also introducing a new technology to automate the collection of single-use cups and coffee pods.

The Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland is running a campaign, ‘Have you got the bottle?’ to get a deposit system going. If successful it will look to England and Wales too.

Dominic Hogg, chairman and founder of Eunomia Research & Consulting on why RVMs have faltered in the UK but flourished elsewhere

RVMs are most often used in countries that are reintroducing deposit refund schemes. Not all such schemes rely to the same extent on RVMs, with some preferring counting centres at appropriate locations.

But RVMs are especially well-suited to schemes that aim to allow the consumer to recoup their deposit at retail outlets (so called ‘return-to-retail’ schemes). The machines are relatively compact and enable containers to be handled easily. The fact that they are not much more widespread in the UK largely reflects the absence of a deposit refund scheme here. Without a deposit or reward scheme in play to encourage the return of a container, then any incentive to use an RVM needs to come largely from the value of material: for a 15g can, the material might be worth around a penny. Under such circumstances, RVMs are likely to be infrequently used. They come into their own in the context of a deposit refund scheme, which also helps to reduce littering of drinks containers.

Steve Stothard is senior vice-president technology for the Reverse Vending Corporation

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