Deposit schemes have led to high rates of return in countries across Europe but in the UK they have caused division between England and Scotland.
In the UK, a battle is brewing over Scotland’s plans for a bottle recycling scheme.
The Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) is due to start in August and will allow shops in Scotland to add 20p (€0.23) to the price of single-use bottles and cans. Customers will then be able to get that money back if they return them to be recycled.
The goal is to achieve a 90 per cent collection rate of bottles and cans by 2024.
But to work properly, experts say there will need to be an exemption to rules that mean different regulations can’t apply to the same product sold in both Scotland and England.
Scotland secretary Alister Jack intends to deny a request from the Scottish National Party for this exemption which could prevent the plan from going ahead. He has criticised the scheme, saying it would be bad for both consumers and businesses.
“The exemption bar is very high indeed,” he told the House of Commons.
There are also plans for a bottle return scheme in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. It was first announced in 2018 but delays mean it now won’t be introduced until October 2025. The plan in Northern Ireland and England also doesn’t include glass vessels whereas those in Scotland and Wales will.
Zero Waste Scotland estimates that this small difference would allow them to recycle more than 500 million glass bottles a year. That adds up to more than 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 saved over the next 25 years.
Which other European countries have bottle return schemes?
A number of European countries already have a DRS including Norway which is home to one of the oldest schemes in the world.
A system with refillable glass containers was first introduced in 1902. Automatic ‘reverse vending machines’ which allow consumers to return bottles were installed in the early 1970s.
Customers pay 2 NOK (around €0.20) for containers of 0.5 litres or less, and 3 NOK (around €0.30) for containers over 0.5 litres. They can return plastic and metal containers for all kinds of beverages.
In 2021, an average of 92.3 per cent of containers were returned - 91.5 per cent of cans and 92.8 per cent of plastic bottles.
Germany is another country with a highly successful bottle deposit scheme. Back in 2002 it took inspiration from Scandinavian countries and introduced the Einwegpfand.
It requires all shops that sell beverages in the country to take back the containers they come in and return a deposit to customers.
Because of their high environmental impact, the deposit on plastic bottles is high at €0.25. The cost is much lower for more readily reusable materials like glass to encourage people to buy them and incentivise residents to return plastic containers.
Much like Norway, the return rate is above 90 per cent for both plastic and metal.
Denmark has one of the most successful deposit return schemes in the world with 1.9 billion bottles and cans brought back in 2021. Its return rate for plastic bottles is the highest in Europe at 96 per cent.
In a triumph for the circular economy, 93 per cent of bottles and cans in Denmark are recycled into new containers.
Why is Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme so controversial?
Despite the success of similar schemes across Europe, a number of politicians have criticised Scotland’s plan.
All three Scottish National Party leadership candidates have indicated that it can’t go ahead in its current form. Kate Forbes has said she would “pause” the scheme, Ash Regan wants to scrap it and Humza Yousaf has advocated for a one-year exemption for small businesses.
Part of the problem is that schemes in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales don’t align.
Firms are worried it will add to their already rising costs. Producers are being encouraged to label items destined for sale in the country with special Scottish barcodes which could add to costs.
Trade bodies have also claimed that it could lead to products disappearing from shelves in Scotland. Companies say they need a longer adjustment period.
Scotland’s Circular Economy Minister Lorna Slater remains confident that the planned 16 August launch date will go ahead, however.
She told the BBC that there had already been a one year delay to help companies recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and millions had already been invested in the project.