Commons debates plastic bottle deposit return schemes

Taking empty bottles back to the shop may be a familiar memory for many in the UK (albeit an uncomfortable one in my own 1980s neighbourhood, for those fearful of the derogatory appellation ‘bottle merchant’), but such schemes have slunk from view in recent decades, outside of mainland Europe (where they are used in 11 countries) and regions of the US and Australia.

Against a backdrop of a 43% rise in plastic bottle beach litter between 2014 and 2015, reported in March by the Marine Conservation Society, many groups have called this year for the introduction of deposit return schemes (DRS) for plastic bottles.

The Green party’s Caroline Lucas joined the chorus on 8 November, presenting an early-day motion to the House of Commons, proposing that such a scheme be introduced as part of the National Litter Strategy.

She looked to the recent success of the mandatory five-pence-carrier-bag-charge, which has reduced the distribution of plastic bags in the UK by around 6 billion. The evidence from other countries also supports the case for a DRS, she said. It suggests that DRS schemes boost recycling and reduce litter.

The proposal is that consumers pay a small cash deposit of around 10p, whenever they buy a drink in a can or bottle. They would get this deposit back when returning the item for recycling.

Earlier in the year a study by the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland claimed around 80% of the Scottish public supported the introduction of a mandatory DRS, evidence later cited by the Scottish Government which in June called for a UK-wide scheme.

Opposition has mainly come from the packaging and plastics sectors. Packaging Recycling Group Scotland (PRGS), a consortium of trade organisations and firms in the food and drinks sector, has said the Scottish Government proposal flies in the face of current consumer behaviour and “fails on nearly every practical level”.

On 11 November the British Plastics Federation issued a statement in response to Lucas’ motion, that it “may not fully consider the impacts of introducing a deposit return scheme (DRS) or current research on litter composition”. The statement continued: “Bottles account for only 2.5% of littered items in England (Keep Britain Tidy Litter Composition Survey of England, 2014). The evidence from other countries indicates that DRSs are very expensive to introduce, have a high cost for local councils, and can cause inconvenience for consumers. In Germany, the cost of collection per item through the DRS is three times as high as a kerbside system (INCPEN Factsheet Packaging & Deposits). The introduction of such a system is likely to undermine the existing kerbside collection operated by local councils as well as penalise consumers who already recycle at home. The industry would welcome the opportunity to discuss recycling and litter with politicians, and encourages the involvement of relevant stakeholders in discussions of legislative proposals.”

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