Return of the pack: a wrap for DRS

Scotland Bottle Return Scheme Reverse Vending Machine

Craig Quirie speaks to a number of key stakeholders about their hopes and concerns regarding Scotland’s impending deposit return scheme (DRS) 

MOST would find it hard to swallow now if their drink came accompanied with a plastic straw rather than a paper one. The once staple item switched, alongside the nation’s collective attitude, to a more environmentally-friendly version almost overnight. No such alternative to plastic bottles has been found, yet the Scottish Government’s impending deposit return scheme (DRS) to tackle the issue has received mixed reviews.

The scheme will see a 20p deposit come alongside the standard price of beverages in plastic bottles and cans – with glass bottles also expected to be included. Consumers will have their deposit returned via recycling machines – which will be a requirement for all retailers stocking drinks. Scotland will be the only UK country operating a deposit return scheme, but globally won’t be alone – with many international countries long since having such a system in action.

Sweden’s version of the scheme has been in play since 1984, and retailers are unable by law to sell any products with labelling which does not comply with the Swedish deposit return scheme. With the Scottish scheme also expected to require unique packaging, concerns have been raised on problems which could arise because of this.

Gavin Partington, director general at the British Soft Drinks Association, said on the scheme, “A DRS only in Scotland, for up to three years, runs a significant risk of being undermined by fraud. For example, a product purchased deposit-free in England being returned to the Scottish system for redemption, skewing the finances of any DRS-operating company. Border issues and fraud present a major risk, and we estimate that over half a billion beverage containers are crossing the Scotland-England border each year, highlighting the need for the scheme to be GB-wide.” 

 He continued by issuing a stark warning on how problematic he believes the scheme could be to manufacturers, and what impact this could have for both businesses and consumers, 

“It is possible that some producers may be inclined to cease supply – either entirely or for specific items – to Scotland to avoid encountering fraud and manufacturing issues. This would limit consumer choice and competition. We urge the Scottish Government to reconsider its proposed timescale, and we will continue to fight to secure a well-designed GB-wide full DRS that stands the best chance of increasing recycling levels and tackling litter.”

Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners said, “We support the implementation of a well-designed deposit return scheme for beverage packaging across Great Britain and are engaging with others in industry and policy makers in Scotland to help shape a scheme that can work for Scotland. One of the key design challenges is to build a scheme which can be successful without introducing barriers to the flow of products between Scotland and other parts of Great Britain. We understand one option is for specific products for Scotland but clearly this will come at a complexity to producers and a cost to consumers, so we continue to work with others to identify the best solutions.”

A spokesperson from A.G. Barr, Scotland’s leading soft drinks manufacturer, said, “A well-designed deposit return scheme (DRS) in Scotland has the potential to set drinks packaging apart from other waste by creating a truly circular system with high levels of recycling. We have been working positively with the Scottish Government and will continue to collaborate closely to deliver a well-designed DRS that works for the environment and is practical for consumers and business.”

The desire for a ready-made and well organised system appears universal. With the potential for a company’s trade to be affected, there is likely to be little patience in a system which would allow for mistakes to be made with the intention of them being developed upon.

Keen to understand how a bottle return scheme would operate and how it could affect their members, The Scottish Grocers Federation ran a trial version in three member stores last year – a voucher off future shops or donation to charity was given to those who returned their bottles and cans, as oppose to a deposit system. John Lee, head of policy and public affairs at The Scottish Grocers Federation, said, “The trial went very well. We got a really good response from customers and staff.

“The machines that we used were quite compact and able to fit in quite nicely, so that wasn’t too big an issue. The average return was around 220 containers per day.”

The federation’s trial run did not include glass – which is a big concern to Lee. As of yet, the Scottish Government has merely recommended that glass containers be included in the scheme, so there is no real answer on whether or not the larger machines used to collect glass will be needed. Many stores will have insufficient floor space to house such machines, so physical handovers between them, the customer and recycling collectors may be needed.   

“We’ve got big concerns of manual takeback – so taking back over the counter; it’s going to be time-consuming, it could interrupt the convenience of the store with queues to return containers and of course a lot of stores will have very little storage space behind the counter, particularly if glass is included,” John Lee added. “We would hope that the manual handling fee to reflect the challenges of manual take back would  be at least as high as the handling fee for the automated take back – oddly enough, the handling fee is usually higher for the automated take back because you have to sacrifice selling space for machines.”

Although it was decided only a limited number of stores would take part in the trial, Lee says that they received an abundance of offers to host the recycling machines – so he sees no reason as to why the Scottish Government’s scheme will be shunned.

“We think most of our members will want to participate in this. There’s been a positive response to the trials, and a lot of stores wanted to get involved. What we’re trying to encourage our members to do, is to see this as a service they’re offering to the community and customers aimed at improving recycling and reducing litter.”

Lee is not the only one to voice concerns over the inclusion of glass. Dave Dalton, chief executive of British Glass, said in a recent press release, “We have been warning for a long time that the system will have damaging consequences for the UK glass manufacturing sector. The UK sector has led moves to increase recycling through investments in infrastructure and communications. Including glass in the proposed DRS will undermine these efforts, increase cost and reduce the amount of glass recycled into new containers. The DRS plans will derail the high levels of recycling already achieved through the existing systems.”

 He continued, “Including glass in a DRS will result in a 28% increase in the day-to-day operational cost of the scheme. These are costs that will ultimately be passed on to the consumer – on top of the deposit required. The effects of this will be catastrophic for the glass manufacturing sector in Scotland. It will mean a drop in the sale of beverages in glass and a knock-on effect on manufacturing.”

However, in a statement earlier this year, environmentalist heavyweights Greenpeace laid their support towards the proposition of glass being included in the scheme – branding it as a crucial point. In June, they released a blog post listing why glass should be included. Points included: broken glass being a hazard to humans and animals; the potential disruption caused to the system should a deposit on glass be introduced in the future; and high-end brands which already package beverages in glass for style purposes gaining a competitive advantage should there be no glass deposit and the prospect of manufacturers switching to glass in order to avoid their products having a deposit imposed on them. Because of the weight of glass, Greenpeace say this could increase carbon output.

Despite there having been much debate on the running of the scheme, the main premise of it is to double Scotland’s recycling rate and ensure the future of the country’s environment – it is not to stifle small businesses or to gain a bit of control over global drinks brands.

Keep Scotland Beautiful has been striving to upkeep standards of the Scottish environment for over 50 years – they claim to make an impact on 1 in 5 people living in Scotland with every project they do. The charity’s Peter Duncan said, “Introducing a deposit return system for Scotland is a bold step towards making Scotland more sustainable. It will undoubtedly have a positive impact in reducing litter and potentially improve recycling rates. 

“DRS will not, however, be the single silver bullet that will solve Scotland’s litter problem. We welcome the commitment in Scotland to investigate design options that are not limited to plastic bottles, but also capture other high value items including cans. We look forward to working closely with government, and stakeholders, on the crucial fine details.”

Admittedly, a bit of a stir was caused by the general public when paper, rather than plastic, was first dunked in their drinks – but it was soon accepted on the basis of the environmental advantages. It remains to be seen if a deposit return scheme will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, in terms of Scotland’s push to become a leader in ecologically friendly living. The scheme is due to be implemented before the end of the year so time will tell on whether it is a success or not.