Deposit return schemes: promoting a circular economy and preventing plastic pollution

I’m lucky enough to get to go to Sweden a lot and it is absolutely one of my favourite places in the world – it definitely feels like home now. As a country, the people seem to care about the environment a lot more than in the UK. One of the things I love about Sweden is that they have had a deposit-refund system since the 80s! Which always leaves me asking why we STILL don’t have one in the UK?

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Discarded plastic bottles and food and drinks containers make up at least a fifth of the waste found on beaches. A deposit return scheme is a really good way to tackle littering, pollution and waste.

What is a deposit return scheme?

When you buy a drinking can or plastic bottle, a deposit is paid by the consumer on top of retail price of the product, which is indicated on the bottle and receipt.  When consumers return empty bottles to a “reverse vending machine” at a supermarket, they receive a paper slip indicating the amount of refund to be taken off their next purchase, as seen below. You usually get around 10p per bottle returned.

Deposit return schemes are great as they promote a circular economy, help fight littering, increase recycling, improve the quality of material collected for recycling and prevent plastic and other containers from eventually making their way to our rivers and oceans. Recycling not only reduces pollution but saves natural resources and energy, lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Deposit return schemes also encourage wider behavioural change around materials, making consumers and industry more responsible for their actions.

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The Swedish pant system

It’s a common site in Sweden to see people hauling bags full of bottles and cans to the supermarket before doing their weekly shop, with the deposit return scheme called pant.  As shown in the picture below, each can or bottle that can be returned is labelled with a pant symbol with the deposit amount indicated.

Under current legislation in Sweden, cans and plastic bottles are part of a deposit return system. The pant system first began in 1984 with aluminium cans. When the deposit return scheme was introduced for plastic bottles in 1994, legislation required industry to produce a refillable plastic bottle system as a condition to introducing them to the market. The system was established in response to the Swedish 1994 Ordinance on Producer Responsibility for Packaging, requiring producers to make provisions for collection, re-use and recycling of their packaging waste. Returpack was established by breweries and retailers to organise the overall activities of the system.

The shop receives compensation from Returpack for the reimbursements made to customers. After the cans and bottles are inserted into the pant machine, they are transported to Norrköping where around 35,000 tonnes of material is recycled every year. A 90% refillable/recycling rate has been set as a goal since the legislation was enforced . In 2016, 85% of aluminium cans and PET bottles were recycled through the pant system, which is around 177 bottles per person on average. Only around 50% of plastic bottles are recycled in the UK.

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Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

I’m using Sweden as an example here just because I have personal experience of it, but in Europe there are 9 other countries that have a similar system: Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Lithuania, Netherlands, and Norway.

What about the UK?

I first heard that the UK wanted to implement a deposit return scheme around a year ago now, with the government confirming plans for England to have a system set up, but it has since gone pretty quiet. Scotland was actually the first part of the UK to announce plans to form a deposit return scheme, with a final scheme design hopefully being published this year.

I found that a scheme has begun in England, with the supermarket Iceland introducing reverse vending machines to 5 stores. Tesco has also announced earlier this year that it will be trialling something similar in several of its stores.This is a great step in the right direction, especially as we need big companies to show they support such systems in order to effectively tackle waste and plastic pollution.

As part of the Resources and Waste Strategy, The Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recently announced an open consultation on the introduction of a deposit return scheme. This could lead to England and Wales having a similar system to Sweden. However, currently it seems that this would be only for bottles 750ml or less, with Surfers Against Sewage stating that this would leave out 58% of the bottles that they found on beaches in 2018. They are currently submitting a response to the open consultation using evidence they have gathered from years of data collection.

However, the consultation is open to the public too and it is important that the government is shown that a deposit return scheme must cover all types of bottles and cans in order to achieve the best outcome for our beaches, rivers and seas. There are over 90 questions in the document, but you don’t need to answer them all. The consultation ends at 23:59 on Monday 13th May and you can easily submit your views here by doing an online survey.

After the success of the 5p plastic bag charge, a deposit return scheme would be a brilliant way to further reduce waste and prevent pollution. It’s good that there seems to be intentions for the a deposit return scheme in the UK. However I can’t help but ask why it has taken so long when countries like Sweden have had one in place for almost 35 years now! I hope to post an update of this later on in the year, hopefully including positive outcomes of the consultation and what the government’s plan is to implement an effective deposit return scheme!

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