Can Scotland afford to lose its bottle over DRS?

A deposit return scheme could deliver considerable environmental benefits but what started as a beautifully simple concept has turned complicated and ugly. By David Burrows

By the time you read this Scotland may well have a new first minister. One of their first jobs will be to consider what to do with the seemingly jinxed plan to introduce a deposit return scheme (DRS). This is a policy that’s been years in the making but in recent weeks has become heavily politicised, sparking heated televised debates during the leadership contest and a chilly reception from the UK government’s Scotland secretary Alister Jack.

“Anyone involved in pushing for large-scale change knows that once you’ve ‘won’ your case in terms of policy-making, the reality of politics presents a whole new challenge,” noted Reloop, a circular economy platform, on LinkedIn recently. “We’re currently watching the situation in the UK, where unfortunately the tumultuous political situation of the past few years is now starting to embrace the issue of deposit return systems.” 

At its heart DRS is simple: in Scotland the plan is for a 20p deposit to be added to drinks containers made from PET plastic, glass, aluminium or steel, which is then refunded when the packaging is returned. Producers of packaging pay a small fee and retailers receive one. Schemes in various guises are run in around 50 countries worldwide – and yet we seem to be in the process of cocking the whole thing up. 

Or will we? That is the question on everyone’s lips. Some of those I have been speaking to believe the August start date is nigh on impossible to meet while others tell me they are confident it’s going ahead as planned. 

There are certainly a number of creases that need to be ironed out. Hospitality firms are worried about what happens to their current waste contracts, for example; Biffa has won the tender to collect all the containers within scope of the DRS. Businesses are also having to think about how to store the materials securely and want more details on how often collections will take place. The timing of collections will also be of interest to some hotel chains – Premier Inn can’t ‘guarantee a good night’s sleep’ if a refuse truck turns up at 1am to upload bins full of bottles and cans.

Circularity Scotland, the scheme administrator, has also yet to really work out how the scheme will operate in stadiums or festivals. Its operations director Simon Jones says there is enough time to sort everything out but the first few weeks will likely bring headlines of how the scheme isn’t working. 

The new first minister will be wary of the potential for negative press. Pausing the scheme, as the three candidates all seem content to do, could be more damaging though, in more ways than one.

Bottling it

For MSPs, a DRS has long been an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the environmental laggards down south. That the new leader is likely to be pushing back on the scheme, at least in the short term, is intriguing. “On one level it’s an obvious attempt to reset relations with business and to avoid upsetting cash-strapped consumers,” explains Professor Chris Hilson, an environmental law expert at the University of Reading. However, it’s also “an odd look for SNP politicians to be on more or less the same side as the UK government”.

Indeed, Westminster is planning to introduce its DRS in England in late 2025, and unlike Scotland’s scheme it won’t include glass (a scheme in Wales will include glass). One harmonised scheme for the whole of the UK would certainly make sense: businesses have for years been telling politicians about potential trade issueswith off-kilter and diverging schemes. “[…] a UK-wide scheme that is similar in terms of operations and structure is required for DRS to be successful,” noted academics from Robert Gordon University (Aberdeen), the University of Wolverhampton and Leeds Beckett University in a 2020 paper for Waste Management.

But only Scotland is currently ready (ish). The UK resources and waste strategy 2018 promised a DRS this year, and while covid has seen it delayed there is a sense Defra is dithering on a host of packaging policy promises including DRS. Should England, Wales and Northern Ireland not catch up rather than Scotland be forced to hold up?

Both in Westminster and Holyrood the message is that they are leading the way on the plastic crisis – until it comes to the crunch, it seems. There is a cost of living crisis and businesses have said that this is the worst of times to introduce such a scheme – but when is a good time? “Politicians need to be careful not to be bounced into condemning any increased environmental expense,” says Hilson.

DRS has already been kicked down the road once in Scotland and polling suggests the public remains supportive of the idea, if a little confused about what it is. An education campaign will take place. 

Research by Ribena and Lucozade-maker Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I details the three phases people will go through – surprise, review and reset – when the scheme comes into force. Using virtual reality to track how people shopped for soft drinks when a 20p deposit was added, the study showed that it would take just seven weeks for people to “change their relationship with drinks containers” with return and redemption rates hitting 88%.

Under the Deposit and Return Scheme Regulations 2020, Circularity Scotland must hit a recycling rate of 80% in the calendar year 2024, and 90% the year after. Savings of almost 4MtCO2e have been forecast between 2024 and 2049. Recycling of PET bottles is expected to rocket from 50% to 95% saving 355ktCO2e. The majority of emissions reductions will come from recycling more glass (63% to 96%, saving 1.2MtCO2e) and aluminium (48% to 95%, saving 1.8MtCO2e). Hundreds of jobs will also be created in Scotland; thousands when schemes across the UK come online.

Data doubts

The benefits of the scheme will certainly have to be at the heart of the campaign but there are doubts about the data being used.

The forecasts seem ambitious but achievable; evidence from elsewhere suggests people will buy into this concept. In 2020, Finnish residents reportedly recycled 94% of aluminium cans (out of 1.4 billion sold) and 92% of plastic bottles (out of 530 million). In Norway, 97% of all plastic drinks bottles are recycled, 92% to such a high standard that they are turned back into drinks bottles, reported The Guardian in 2018. 

However, there are question marks about the baseline recycling rates the Scottish government and its advisors at Zero Waste Scotland have used. Some in the waste sector say the impact assessment contained numbers they didn’t really recognise, with Scotland’s current rates for in-scope containers estimated to be around 50% while the UK ones being used by Defra are closer to 70%. Zero Waste Scotland, the Scottish government and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency were all approached to explain the difference and the sources of the data but none really could in sufficient detail.

Alupro, the aluminium packaging recycling organisation, points to a 2022 recycling figure for aluminium cans of 82%. The UK household plastic packaging collection survey 2022 conducted by charity Recoup shows 75% of PET drinks bottles are collected and recycled currently. Still, around 4 billion plastic bottles, 2.7 billion cans and 1.5 billion glass bottles are not recycled every year. “We consider that a well-designed deposit return scheme for drinks containers could achieve recycling rates of 90% or higher,” says Defra. 

Most of the conversations I’ve had support the aims of DRS but the recent noise has cast a shadow. Leon Thompson, executive director at UKHospitality Scotland, says there is a “credibility gap” in DRS. “[…] people understand the theory of it but a lot of people don't necessarily buy into the concept that this is actually going to improve recycling rates.” Concerns about how the scheme will run and its real benefits are “chipping away” at the confidence of the public and drinks retailers, noted Sharon George, an expert in environmental sustainability at Keele University, in a blog for The Conversation.


The considerable salary of Circularity Scotland boss David Harris is among the recent headlines, and so too is the reported £57m that will come the administrator’s way from unreturned containers. But unredeemed deposits will be used to keep the costs of the scheme low, an approach the UK government will also be using for its scheme.

And last week small waste contractors hit out at the decision to award Biffa the 10-year contract for collecting the cans and bottles. The Resource Management Association Scotland claimed there would be job losses and potentially more emissions due to long haul collections. RMAS chair Drew Murdoch said that “from August, hospitality businesses currently serviced by multiple operators across the Scottish waste management sector will have no alternative but to accept Biffa’s services for the collection of all qualifying drinks containers. This will decimate our industry,” he added.

Circularity Scotland should certainly prepare for another few tough weeks and Jones suggests they need to be on the front foot: negative headlines are certainly feeding doubts about a scheme that could bring huge positive benefits. 

Jack, for one, is revelling in the spotlight. Reports suggest he will block the exemption to the Internal Market Act 2020 that Scotland requires in order to launch its DRS. It’s not quite that simple, as Slater explained during a testy session in front of MSPs on the net-zero, energy and transport committee this month. The agreed resources and waste common framework – which was also used in the exemption for Scotland’s single-use plastic bans last year – has been followed. Evidence has been presented and the process has been collaborative the minister said. “We’re nearing the end of the process [and] the common framework has indicated that an exclusion should be granted,” added Euan Page, head of UK frameworks at the Scottish government. 

My glass is not half full or half empty but after looking into this debate I am certainly ready for a stiff drink. Come August it could be in containers with a 20p deposit added but supporters of DRS aren’t popping corks just yet.

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