Briefing: Where are we up to with DRS?

Nick Hughes reports on the latest deposit return scheme developments, and outlines how such a scheme might work, and why it might not…

Will we ever actually get a deposit return scheme?

Yes, as things stand. Powers for a DRS for England, Wales and Northern Ireland are laid down in the Environment Bill, which recently passed its second reading in Parliament. The election could complicate things depending on the outcome, but the current government has said it is minded to introduce a DRS in 2023. Scotland is even further along the road and recently published draft regulations ahead of the proposed start of a new system on 1 April 2021.

What’s it likely to involve?

The Scottish scheme will require a 20p deposit on all drinks containers made from aluminium, steel, glass and PET plastics, which is then returned when the containers are taken back to collection sites, including local shops and supermarkets. The scope of the UK’s is still under consideration, but responses to a recent consultation came out in favour of an ‘all-in’ scheme, rather than an ‘on-the-go’ scheme that purely targets products most often sold for consumption outside of the home.

What else do we know?

The majority of respondents to the UK government’s consultation wanted all materials – encompassing PET and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles, steel and aluminium cans, and glass bottles – included in a DRS, as well as all types of drinks, including soft, alcoholic, milk and plant-based. Respondents were divided over the level of the deposit but most believed it should be at least 20p and no more than 50p.

The government is proposing that all producers of in-scope materials and drinks would be required to join the scheme via a producer fee that would cover the full, net cost of its operation. It is also proposing the establishment of an independent, not-for-profit, industry- led body to manage its implementation and day-to-day running.

Where are return points likely to be situated?

Again, we don’t yet know – however, the government wants a scheme to provide convenient means of returning drinks containers and reclaiming deposits, either from the same place people bought the item or to a different place using a reverse vending machine (RVM), which takes the item, reads the barcode, returns the deposit to the user and holds the container ready for collection. Smaller retailers will likely have the option of accepting products manually over-the-counter. The majority of consultation respondents also believed that businesses such as pubs, hotels and cafes selling drinks that fall within the scope of the DRS should host a return point.

What do businesses make of this?

Foodservice operators interviewed for Footprint’s recent The Future of Sustainable Packaging report broadly welcomed a DRS and in particular the potential to transform people’s attitudes to waste. However, they have concerns too. One specific worry is around the provision of collection points. “Where we struggle is most of our sites are very small with limited space and resource, so if we are mandated to provide collection points for drinks containers I think that would be really challenging for us,” one caterer said.

The same caterer also raised concerns about glass being included within the scope of a DRS, saying: “Most of our sites have got rid of glass because of the safety risk so we wouldn’t then want to start bringing glass back into our sites.”

Are there any other concerns?

Most stakeholders agree that those responsible for designing a DRS must do everything possible to minimise the risk of unintended consequences. The aluminium industry, for instance, has raised concerns that the blanket 20p deposit for the Scottish scheme could push consumers away from easy-to-recycle cans that are often sold in multipacks and towards large plastic bottles, thereby increasing the amount of single-use plastic being sold.

Some councils, meanwhile, are worried that a DRS would have a potentially detrimental impact on existing kerbside collection schemes from which recycled materials can provide an important revenue stream.

The opportunity for fraud has also been mooted as a risk. Inconsistency between Scotland and the rest of the UK could result in people crossing the border to try and redeem a deposit that was never paid, although the risk could be minimised through barcode scanning. The UK government, for its part, has said that its ambition is to implement a scheme that ensures regulatory consistency across the UK.

So what next?

The draft Scottish legislation includes a consultation period that runs until 10 December 2019, after which comments will be considered before the government brings the final regulations forward to a vote in the Scottish Parliament.

The UK government plans to hold a second consultation in 2020, where the scope of a DRS, including the materials and drinks to be included, its management and how a scheme will be financed, will be developed further. First, however, there’s an election to be fought.

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