Foodservice Footprint shutterstock_24936946-copy Scotland bottles DRS (again and again) Drinks Sector News Out of Home News Analysis  news-email most-read email-news

Scotland bottles DRS (again and again)

Will it be a case of ‘third time lucky’ as first minister postpones deposit return scheme until 2024. David Burrows reports.

Humza Yousaf’s inaugural speech as first minister was pitched as “new leadership, a fresh start for Scotland”. But for environmental policy it was the same old story of a politician who is “committed” to change but doesn’t have the bottle to actually do anything about it.

“I remain committed to this [deposit return] scheme as a way to increase recycling, to reduce litter on our streets and on our beaches and help achieve our net-zero ambitions,” he said last week, before confirming that the scheme will be delayed until March 1st 2024. “This provides 10 months for businesses to get ready,” he added.

This is the third time the DRS has been pushed back; as you read this the delay totals 755 days to-date but will have reached 1,065 come the new deadline. In that time some 2.5 billion drinks containers are expected to have been littered, landfilled or incinerated instead of recycled, with almost 0.5 million tonnes of CO2e released, according to APRS, Scotland’s countryside charity. 

Friends of the Earth Scotland called it “a shameful breaking of promises”. Yousaf “has decided to put corporate interests and politics before people and the planet”, said FoE campaigner Kim Pratt. UKHospitality meanwhile was overjoyed. The delay will “avoid inflicting enormous pain and cost onto hospitality businesses this August [and] it also offers a signal to business that their concerns are being heard”, said UKH Scotland executive director Leon Thompson.

Business groups have pushed hard for a delay, suggesting the scheme is “poorly designed”. Some of the scheme’s supporters feel big drinks brands should have spoken up and saved it.

Indeed, whether this latest delay will see DRS sucked into a death spiral remains to be seen. Ministers have already begun chipping away at the boundaries. 

A few days after Yousaf’s  announcement, circular economy minister Lorna Slater announced initial changes, including: the exclusion of containers under 100ml; an exemption for hospitality businesses that sell the “large majority” of their drinks products for consumption on the premises from acting as a return point for containers; and a threshold of 5,000 units per year that will “remove any craft drinks”. The government said the threshold would mean 44% of businesses wouldn’t have to now apply a 20p deposit to their bottles or cans; however 99.5% of containers would still be captured within the scheme.

Expect pressure to grow now for glass to be excluded from Scotland’s scheme, which would bring it into line with Westminster’s plans for its (delayed) DRS in 2025. Some NGOs tried to keep their glasses half full. “[The UK government] could, right now, pledge to match Scottish levels of ambition in accepting glass – as [its] own consultation encouraged [it] to – and to match the new Scottish timetable,” said City to Sea policy manager Steve Hynd.

I wouldn’t wager 20p on such an outcome. The DRS has long been politicised and Yousaf couldn’t resist blaming the latest delay on Westminster. “[…] we recognise the uncertainty that continues to be created as a result of the UK government delaying the decision to exclude the scheme from the Internal Market Act (IMA). We had hoped for a decision on that this week – but it has not come,” he said.

That suggests it’s all the fault of Westminster. Some politicians have certainly been stirring (and supporting) ferocious lobbying from businesses to delay the DRS, and the IMA is undoubtedly a spanner in the works. But the message from Holyrood last month was that the process so far has been collaborative. “We’re nearing the end of the process [and] the common framework has indicated that an exclusion [from the IMA] should be granted,” Euan Page, head of UK frameworks at the Scottish government, told MSPs on Holyrood’s net-zero, energy, and transport select committee in March.

It would be a “big deal” if ministers in Westminster turned the exemption down without hard evidence, Slater told the committee. “The UK government needs to at long last issue an exclusion, and recognise the right of the Scottish parliament to enact legislation in devolved areas without interference,” she said last week. NGOs recently warned those seeking to disrupt DRS at this late stage would be in “legal quicksand” if the businesses affected were to speak to their lawyers. 

There will certainly be no shortage of controversy and change in the coming weeks. “We were ready to go in August, however, it’s obviously the Scottish government who set policy and we’re now working to the new date announced by the first minister,” a spokesperson from scheme administrator Circularity Scotland told me. “We have confidence in the systems and processes we’ve put in place and this added time gives us an opportunity to test and refine these.” 

Should we have similar confidence in Yousaf’s commitment to the scheme? Like it or not, this DRS has now become a litmus test for his government’s environmental ambitions. And businesses and their lobby groups can’t hide either: rather than continually criticise they need to work constructively to deliver DRS.