Real recycling – why governments must rise to the circularity challenge in the 2020s and beyond

Marcel Arsand

By Marcel Arsand, Ball sustainability manager and chairman of The Can Makers

IN THE DECADE ahead forward-thinking cities like New York are set to put a true circular economy at the heart of their business model. It’s high time governments the world over did the same.

From ‘throwaway living’…

In the 1950s New York was a city on the march. Fuelled by a post-war jobs boom, New Yorkers were adjusting to life in a new era of conspicuous consumption. In 1955 the now defunct New York magazine Life published a state of the nation-style feature with the headline ‘Throwaway Living’. The piece heralded a supposed golden age of single-use living – a brave new world where you needn’t worry about what happened to that disposable cutlery you ate your lunch with. Modern American families, it seemed, took out the trash and didn’t think too much about what happened to it afterwards.

How times change. In March this year New York played host to the city’s inaugural Circular City Week. Some 2,100 people got together to brainstorm how the city can accelerate its transformation to a truly circular economy. New York is not alone in wanting to ditch the linear thinking that has left our planet burdened by a never-ending stream of consumer waste.

… to true circularity

Governments are looking for new ways of hardwiring circularity into their waste and recycling regimes. The Scottish Government is set to introduce a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers coming into effect in 2021. Holyrood is expected to put legislation before the Scottish Government early next year.

In the rest of the UK DEFRA is set to launch a second consultation next year on introducing a DRS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at some point in 2023. Governments across the UK and beyond face seismic challenges in navigating the huge logistical demands that implementing coherent DRS regimes create. The Institute of Economic Affairs warned earlier this year a UK-wide DRS is expected to cost more than £1 billion in its first year, with the tangible economic benefits set to amount to less than £100 million.

DRS systems need to include all materials…

There is wide public consensus though that if DRS regimes are to be introduced across the UK and beyond, they should include the widest range of materials and container sizes possible. Responding to a 12-week consultation launched in February this year by DEFRA, more than 200,000 people answered Whitehall’s call for evidence. Some 69% of respondents backed an ‘all-in’ regime. In a similar consultation held in Scotland, some 81% of respondents favoured a DRS including PET bottles, metal cans, glass bottles, cartons and disposable cups, showing significant support for a scheme which includes a comprehensive range of materials.

A DRS regime is likely to see consumers return their empty drinks containers to reverse vending machines (RVMs) or manual collection points with a view to redeeming their deposit. In Norway there are around 11,300 manual return points and 3,700 shops with RVMs, the latter being responsible for collecting 93% of returned packaging. In the UK, which has a population 12 times bigger than Norway, research has suggested that if a DRS is implemented here then we are likely to need between 35,000 and 45,000 such machines to provide adequate coverage in shops – roughly the same number of ATMs already available in the country. This presents huge logistical and financial challenges, not to mention the heavy reliance on the automated system.

…have a variable deposit fee…

A DRS must be implemented with all intended and unintended consequences considered. The deposit fee risks having negative unintended consequences if applied as a flat rate by incentivising consumers to swap from drinks in small portion size packaging to bigger portions sold in large containers.

A 2019 study conducted by Alupro indicated that almost 25% of can consumers would switch to large PET bottles from multipack cans if a flat rate 20 pence deposit fee were introduced. Enacting a variable deposit fee where consumers pay an amount determined by the size of the drink’s container would ensure there is no market distortion between different packaging materials and sizes.

and be easy for consumers to use

The proposed ‘return to the shop’ model sounds fairly simple in pure shopping terms. When you do your weekly shop at the supermarket, you take back the empties and cash them in for money, or you can do the same thing on a more casual basis when you pop into the corner shop.

However, there are logistical challenges that arise when considering the dynamic shopping habits of modern consumers. Currently 20% and growing of the population shops online, are there going to be facilities to return containers through the online delivery firm?

How the DRS would work for consumers on-the-go is another important consideration. If you are on public transport and have just finished a drink, what are your options then? What if you have just had an impromptu picnic in the local park and have several valuable containers to hand back? And what do you do with all those empty drinks cans if you are at a festival campsite?

Having considered, robust answers to these questions will ensure the DRS regime is futureproofed as a convenient, easy-to-use consumer experience which will encourage its continued use.

Now more than ever before consumers want to embrace systems that promote real recycling and true circularity. In the 2020s public concern for the environment is only set to grow. Consumers want to be proud of the world they leave to their children’s children, participating fully in schemes designed to boost recycling within the constraints afforded by a limited public purse.

As Whitehall and Holyrood move towards implementation of DRS regimes in all four nations of the UK, it’s crucial our political leaders put consumers at the heart of their plans. This means creating a system that is straightforward and highly responsive to the realities of life for millions of Britons with precious little spare time. This means ‘all-in’ DRS regimes with variable fees where consumers are given access to a range of return and collection systems – not just the often expensive RVM model.