Gove shows bottle on drinks waste

DEFRA will launch a deposit return scheme for empty drinks containers but campaigners still have a fight on their hands, says David Burrows.

A deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic, glass and metal drinks containers will be launched in England, the government confirmed on Wednesday. Details of the scheme remain scant – there will be a consultation this year and it remains unclear whether it will be mandatory for all retailers. Scotland has already committed to roll out a scheme.

UK consumers go through an estimated 13 billion plastic drinks bottles a year, but more than three billion are incinerated, sent to landfill or left to pollute our streets, countryside and marine environment, the government said.

A statement on the DEFRA website explained that the decision to introduce a DRS followed analysis conducted by its “voluntary and economics incentives working group”. The consultation on a DRS will also be fed into the wider consultation on taxes and charges for single-use plastics, which was launched this month and runs until May 18th.

What many reports don’t appear to have picked up on is that the expert group’s assessment of these schemes is far from glowing. They noted that there is “some evidence” that well-designed and run schemes could increase recycling here by 20% and improve the quality of materials collected. But those backing the concept will need to provide hard evidence if the government is to be swayed.

“There is still little direct evidence on the impacts of DRSs on litter and we did not receive significant new data or information through the call for evidence; the evidence submitted on this tended to be anecdotal,” the group noted. Despite the environment secretary’s reported support for a DRS, there is much still to play for.

Deposit return schemes can vary. Generally, they involve consumers paying an up-front deposit when they buy a drink – ranging from 8p in Sweden to 22p in Germany – which is redeemed when the empty container is returned. Other options include cash rewards for returning drinks containers without an upfront deposit – so-called “reverse vending”.

Campaigners welcomed the news. Samantha Harding from the Campaign to Protect Rural England said: “Deposit return schemes have already been proven to work elsewhere. Polling shows that almost three-quarters of the British public support the introduction of a deposit return scheme, and retailers including Tesco, Co-op, Iceland, Aldi and Pret are also in favour.”

Commonwealth heads of government will meet in London in April to formally consider the Blue Charter initiative to protect marine resources.

In the space of just a few months, single-use plastics have become an international priority, but the packaging industry has voiced concerns that things may be moving a little too quickly on the policy front.

In March Paul Vanston, the chief executive of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), urged the government not to make any “knee-jerk” decisions on new waste regulations.

“We now have a very emotional narrative that we need to change into a rational policy,” said Vanston in an interview with Recycling & Waste World magazine. “There is a concern,” he added, “that the pace of change may mean we unavoidably have some legislation that is knee-jerk. We have to balance pace with the right legislation.”

The government has been under intense pressure from NGOs and MPs to back up the vision set out in the 25-year environment plan with new policies. Many point to Scotland, where a DRS is in the pipeline as well as bans on single-use items such as plastic straws and cotton buds.

The Commons environmental audit committee has also criticised DEFRA for ignoring its calls for a 25p “latte levy” on single-use coffee cups.

Vanston has been travelling the UK with Marcus Gover, the chief executive of WRAP, speaking to industry representatives on behalf of the environment secretary, Michael Gove. They discovered overwhelming support for reform of the packaging recovery note system.

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