Deposits and beyond: what next for plastic waste? – James Mackenzie

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It’s becoming a niche obsession of mine: effective and fair policy ideas that can get support from left and right. One such is deposit return on drinks containers (declaration of interest: I am paid to work on this as a consultant to the APRS campaign Have You Got The Bottle?).

Frustration with litter on land and at sea isn’t a left or right issue. Conservative MSP John Scott, for example, does a regular litter pick around his home town of Ayr, and also takes a bin bag with him when walking around Arthur’s Seat, something Greens have also been known do. In fact, politicians of all parties report full inboxes with litter complaints: it’s not just unsightly, it’s bad for our mental health and it’s damaging our environment on land and at sea (as Blue Planet and Sky Ocean Rescue have laid out in upsetting detail).

Deposits are based on a simple idea: if you pay a little more for a can or a bottle you’ll have an incentive to bring it back for a refund. Older people remember it being widespread (one SNP MSP told me he even used to get money for collecting empty jam jars as a child), but the Barrs “glass cheque” survived until very recently. Those who’ve visited countries where deposits are used are often evangelical about it, both for the simplicity of returns and the visible effects in the streets and in the countryside.

Behind that simple exterior is a more complicated set of financial flows. Modern systems require no government funding: instead three sources of revenue make them work. First, pure streams of food-grade single-material recyclables are worth money (compare that to the chaotic and dirty mix found in most kerbside bins), although the value fluctuates. Second, producers are required to pay a small amount per can or bottle, which is usually a fraction of a penny.

Third, the small number of unredeemed deposits typically stay in the system – so those who still drop litter are those who pay for a cleaner environment. At the moment, of course, the costs of endless cleanups are met by society as a whole, the litterer and non-litterer alike. Although some materials will be lost to local authority recycling, the net financial effect is positive for councils when the reduced bin emptying and litter collection costs are taken into account. Similarly, retailers are recompensed for their time and shop space through a handling fee, given their role in collecting empties on behalf of a deposit system.

The results are striking, and accountable in ways that other systems can never match. Every can or bottle is counted onto the market, and the return rate can be accurately calculated for each material. Industry opponents produced increasingly fanciful estimates for how much we already recycle as the campaign for deposits progressed, but Zero Waste Scotland estimated last year that around 80% of glass bottles are recycled here, with a figure for cans and plastic bottles of around 50%. The modern European deposit systems, on the other hand, see returns in the 90-99% range. You can see the results on their streets and beaches (one survey of Norway’s beaches found that five out of every six cans and bottles still littered came from non-deposit countries).

In Scotland, deposits have been on the agenda for ten years, and the powers for Ministers to introduce such a system were passed in 2009 as part of the Climate Change Act. Former SNP Minister Richard Lochhead championed the idea both in office and, after 2016, from the back benches. It’s been Green and Lib Dem policy for years, and Labour politicians at Westminster and Holyrood have also called for deposits.

In September last year, the First Minister announced deposits were coming to Scotland, and then, at the end of last month, Michael Gove followed suit for England. The Welsh are likely to get on board (despite a more successful kerbside system), and the main questions now are whether the various administrations can work together to design something effective they can all agree on.

It’s great news all round, but the problem is there isn’t that much else where the same model can be so cheaply adopted, and the plastics problem is so widespread. Empty crisp packets would be harder to scan for a deposit to be returned, and they’re worthless when collected. And an answer is required for the single-use plastics currently in the cross-hairs (straws, coffee cups) but if you melted all the straws used in Scotland every year down the resulting lump of plastic would be about a bin-bag full, according to Maurice Golden MSP.

Some materials are pretty indefensible and in theory could easily be removed from the litter and waste streams. Why should we still permit the use of polystyrene when equally good alternatives exist both for fast food and packaging? Beyond those obvious use-for-two-minutes materials, why should any non-recyclable plastic be sold? Even then, how could you guarantee to get other recyclable plastics back in to be recycled? For example, a large fraction of the problem in our seas is abandoned polypropylene fishing nets, so-called “ghost nets“. They could be recycled, but they’re often abandoned when they snag on the sea bottom: how big would the incentive have to be to ensure they are brought back?

The clearest way to think about this issue overall is the concept of extended producer responsibility. If you make it, you’re responsible for it all the way to its sustainable end. That’s the principle which underlies both deposits and the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive. Another way of looking at it is that we need to prevent companies from externalising their costs: in this case, litter and pollution.

It’s another approach that should again have appeal from left to right. The alternative is an economic incentive for companies to compete to see how much of their costs they can externalise onto the rest of us in pursuit of a competitive advantage. Fully adopting this approach won’t just change how we recycle, or what is recyclable, but what is sold in the first place and how it’s made. It will be disruptive, but it will also bring opportunities in the much-vaunted circular economy. And look around you to see what the alternative looks like.

James Mackenzie is a freelance communications consultant and a former head of media for the Scottish Greens