Commentary: The vital role of deposit return schemes
Scandinavia, Norway, Canada and Scotland are embracing deposit return schemes to increase recycling rates.

Commentary: The vital role of deposit return schemes

Truls Haug, managing director of Tomra collection solutions UK and Ireland, says DRS transitions countries to circular economy.

July 12, 2019

Every minute, 1 million plastic bottles are bought around the world. In the United Kingdom, consumers go through an estimated 13 billion plastic drinks bottles per year, with more than 3 billion incinerated, sent to landfill of left to pollute the environment.

Deposit return schemes (DRS) have been identified around the world as part of the solution to this problem, as a way both of tackling pollution and increasing recycling rates.  

With both production and consumption growing, it is positive that the U.K. is beginning to transition into a more circular economy with legislation that follows the example of other countries.

In the U.K., Scotland has been the first to commit to a deposit return scheme as part of wider efforts to prevent discarded drinks containers from ending up in streets and oceans. The country stands on the cusp of a seismic shift. Its government has in the last few weeks announced an “all in” scheme to be up and running by 2021, covering drinks containers of all sizes and a wide range of materials, including glass.

The U.K. government is currently consulting on proposals to introduce a DRS for drink containers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, watching closely as feedback on the Scottish model rolls in.

Benefits of DRS

Deposit return schemes have experienced great success in Scandinavia, where recycling rates are about double of those in the U.K.

Globally, DRS are achieving up to 40 per cent higher collection rates for plastic, aluminum and glass beverage containers than other collection methods. Tomra’s reverse vending machines (RVMs) for container collection capture 40 billion used beverage containers across 82,000 installations worldwide every year. 

In order to make the return of bottles and cans more efficient and convenient, many container deposit schemes use automated RVMs to analyse and sort containers when they are collected for recycling and reuse. RVMs instantly count the number of containers returned, sort away ineligible containers and pay out the correct deposit refund to recyclers. It is considerably more efficient and cleaner than taking containers back manually, as well as being better equipped at dealing with high volumes.  

RVMs can be found at supermarkets, allowing users to receive their refund in cash or as vouchers or points they can use in store. In some countries, it’s possible to donate the deposit money to charity, direct from the reverse vending machine.

Tomra believes there are two main reasons behind container deposit schemes’ success in tackling pollution and increasing recycling rates.

Deposit return systems provide a financial incentive for consumers to return drink containers, which might otherwise become litter or thrown into landfill. Giving a financial value to these empties--.25 euros per bottle in some countries and 20 pence in Scotland--communicates that they have a value for society and helps to shift perceptions. Containers are viewed and treated as a resource, rather than simply as waste.

Also, by separating bottles and cans for recycling through RVMs, drink containers are collected without contamination from other types of household waste. This ensures containers can be recycled into new bottles and cans, rather than used for lower quality applications. This is a process known as closed loop recycling, which Tomra calls the “clean loop.”

This reduces both reliance on the raw materials needed to produce new beverage containers and waste ending up in landfills or in the environment.

Success around the world

Countries around the world successfully operate these schemes, which result in 70 to 100 percent of all drink containers being recycled.

Scandinavia and Norway are recognized as trailblazers in DRS. Starting with Tomra’s first RVM in 1972, today return rates in Norway are 97 percent for cans and 95 percent for PET plastic, with collections managed by scheme coordinator Infinitum.

Following the introduction of its DRS in 2003, Germany’s recycling return rates are approximately 97 percent of all plastic bottles and 99 percent for cans.

With the aim of reducing litter, cutting local government costs and boosting recycling rates, Lithuania introduced its scheme in 2016 with Tomra RVMs, increasing the country’s return rates from 34 percent to 92 percent in two years.

In Canada, the first DRS was rolled out in 1970, with nearly all provinces and territories now embracing it. The return schemes recover 80 percent of nonrefillable beverage containers sold compared with 50 percent from municipal curbside recycling programs.

Tomra sees these countries as examples of the positive impact that it anticipates DRS will have on returns in the U.K.

Moving to a circular economy

Tomra believes container deposit schemes are one part of the solution to changing attitudes around empty drink containers and improving recycling rates and are a vital part of moving to a circular economy.

European Union member states have legislative proposals on waste, including a 75 percent target recycling rate on plastic packaging by 2030 and a 90 percent collection rate by 2025. DRS not only drive recycling targets but ensure materials can be recycled in the most effective way possible.

Tomra believes the more materials included in DRS and the fewer restrictions, the better. A simple, straightforward and all-encompassing scheme has the potential to achieve the best return rates. However, the best result is a strong circular economy that keeps litter out of oceans, streets and landfill and changes habits for good.