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DRS scheme for Scotland in disarray

Scotland’s deposit return scheme appears to be sinking fast as the deadline for registrations closes. David Burrows reports.

Scotland’s plan to introduce a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers ahead of other devolved nations looks to be “dead in the water” according to reports this week. 

The Times reported that politicians in Westminster are planning to block the scheme, which involves placing a 20p deposit on glass, plastic, aluminium and steel drinks containers of 50ml to 3 litres. The concept, which has been successful in other countries, is aimed at motivating people to recycle and reduce litter.

Scotland had planned to push ahead of other devolved nations and be the first to roll out a scheme. But the August 16th start date now looks increasingly unlikely.

NGOs have called on Scotland to stand firm and not allow the UK Government to slow the process down, pointing to the recycling rates of around 90% achieved in other countries that have introduced such deposit schemes.

Waste is a devolved policy issue but the DRS, much like the single-use plastic bans introduced in Scotland last year, would require an exemption from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020.

Discussions between officials north and south of the border have taken place, but as yet there has been no official ministerial request from the Scottish Government for a UK internal market exemption for the DRS.

In a debate on Monday in the House of Lords Defra minister Lord Benyon warned of the risks of “fraud, major losses in consumer spend, loss of investment in the Scottish economy, and financial and environmental implications for local authorities”.

Policy pause

The three candidates seeking to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister have all also voiced concerns over the timescales, costs and practicalities in recent days.

“Finally, common sense is prevailing in Holyrood as the complexity and devastating impact of the deposit return scheme becomes glaringly evident,” said UKHospitality Scotland executive director Leon Thompson.

As registrations for producers making or businesses importing drinks bottles closed today, March 1st, UKHospitality was among a growing number of sceptics now calling for an “immediate pause” and “full review” of the scheme. “The sad thing is that everyone agrees it’s a concept that works, made very difficult by not going ahead as one nation,” said one drinks industry source.

Industry has for months been voicing serious concerns about the scheme which businesses say will create a “distinct Scottish drinks market” that is open to fraud. Some producers have warned that ranges will be reduced in Scotland if the scheme goes ahead before the rest of the UK.

Divergence between Scotland’s scheme and the one planned in England hasn’t helped either. Glass will be included in Scotland’s scheme, as well as in Wales, but will be excluded from England’s DRS.

“It is the Scottish Government’s job to come up with a scheme that works,” a UK source told The Scotsman. “But it is crystal clear the scheme is already in deep trouble even before the UK Government have been asked to relax laws protecting cross-border trade.”

The Scottish Government and scheme administrator Circularity Scotland (CSL) reportedly held crisis talks with industry leaders at the end of last week in a bid to salvage the proposals.

Circular economy minister Lorna Slater is reportedly mulling over a one-year exemption for small drinks producers.

The Scottish Government has in recent weeks made concessions, including most recently a £22m package of supportaimed at smaller businesses. In December, cuts to producer fees for the scheme were announced as well as exemptions for smaller retailers. In January, following consultation with industry and independent analysis by PwC, an increase of up to 19% in the return handling fees for the DRS was confirmed.

All this might not be enough, however, with politicians warning that the scheme would add to the cost of living crisis. SNP leadership hopeful Kate Forbes, who is currently finance secretary, said this week the scheme is “well-intentioned” but fears “economic carnage” if it’s rolled out in the current timeframe.

Supporters of the scheme note that producers have been imposing the external costs of their single-use drinks containers on others for many years – and that price has been paid by the environment, the climate and taxpayers who have to pay for litter removal. “Scotland’s DRS rightly seeks to address this, in accordance with the polluter pays principle,” Professor Chris Hilson, an expert in UK and EU environmental law told Footprint.

Simplified scheme

As pressure increases on Scotland to delay its DRS, calls for a unified UK scheme have snowballed. “Shoe-horning a DRS, piecemeal into the four nations at different times was never going to work,” said Mike Hanson, director of sustainable business at contract caterer WSH. “The whole system needs to be streamlined and UK-wide.” 

A UK-wide scheme is seen by many as a simpler – and perhaps more sustainable – approach. 

However, that requires the UK government to grease the wheels under its scheme, which isn’t set to roll out until 2025 at the earliest. 

Benyon this week talked of “alignment” on environmental policies. “It is perfectly possible for all four countries of the union to work through a scheme and implement it gently,” he said.

NGOs however are growing increasingly impatient of pauses to key packaging policies – both north and south of the border. The Scottish scheme has been delayed twice already and campaigners called on politicians in Holyrood to seize the economic and environmental opportunities available. 

“Once DRS is introduced, there will be 34,000 fewer plastic bottles littered every day in Scotland, £62m a year saved by tackling the indirect impacts of litter and a reduction of 4 million tonnes of carbon emissions over 25 years,” noted Friends of the Earth Scotland. “Household recycling rates in Scotland have been stuck at around 43% for a decade but DRS is expected to increase recycling for bottles and cans covered in the scheme to 90%.”

Some 4 billion plastic bottles, 2.7 billion cans and 1.5 billion glass bottles are not recycled every year in the UK, according to Defra, which recently published its response to a consultation on schemes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The DRS will include special machines, known as reverse vending machines, and designated sites where people can return their bottles and receive their deposits back. 

Research undertaken last year by insights agency Shoppercentric for Ribena producer Suntory Beverage & Food – a founding member of Circularity Scotland – showed people changed their relationship with drinks containers in just seven weeks. Shoppers were incentivised to return their empties and redemption rates hit 88% in this time.

  1. John Hamilton Avatar

    Your article missed a rather crucial factor. The companies that have signed up already account for over 90% of Scotlands drinks containers.