by Scott Faulds
Last year, following the screening of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, the issue of single-use plastic and its effect on the ecosystem rose to the forefront of the public’s mind. Research conducted by Waitrose & Partners found that 88% of people who watched Blue Planet have now changed the way they use plastics, with 60% of viewers now likely to use a refillable water bottle. The “blue planet effect” has even influenced the work of various legislatures, with the introduction of new laws designed to ban single-use plastic in the Scottish Government, UK Government and European Commission. Additionally, both the Scottish and UK Governments have been looking into ways to reduce use of single-use plastics through the introduction of what is known as a deposit return scheme (DRS).
What is a deposit return scheme?
The basis of a DRS is relatively simple: when you purchase a drink in a single-use container you pay a nominal fee as a deposit. On returning the container you receive your deposit back. The Scottish Government have recently announced that they have set the deposit for their scheme at 20p. DRSs have been successfully operating across the world for several years and are particularly common in the Nordic countries, where container return rates are between 88% to 96%. However, whilst the basis of the DRS is often the same, each country has a different set of operating criteria that determines which single-use containers can participate in the scheme, the level of deposit and the places where people can return their single-use containers.
The Norwegian Model
The most effective DRS in the world can be found in Norway, colloquially known as “panting”, which has been in operation since the early 2000s. 97% of all plastic drink bottles are returned and less than 1% of all plastic bottles sold in Norway end up in the environment. Most impressively, it is estimated that 92% of all plastic bottles returned are recycled back into plastic bottles, with the chief executive of Infinitum (the private, not-for-profit, operator of the DRS owned by retailers and producers) estimating that some bottles have already been recycled more than fifty times.
Within the Norwegian model, the legislation underpinning the scheme is a single page, with the industry owned body Infinitum entrusted to decide how best to operate the DRS. Infinitum is incentivized to make the scheme as efficient as possible due to an environmental tax placed on all producers of plastic bottles, which is lifted if 95% of all single-use containers are returned.
The Norwegian scheme accepts all polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and aluminium containers if packaging has been designed in line with Infinitum’s guidelines, which ensures that all containers entering the scheme are able to be easily recycled. These guidelines are fundamental to ensure the circular nature of the scheme. For example, it is critical that labels attached to bottles are easily removed without leaving any residue which could inhibit their ability to be recycled. The level of deposit charged varies, with all aluminium and small PET containers set at 2kr (17p) and large (500ml+) PET containers at 3kr (26p). All retailers that sell beverages eligible for the scheme are required to act as a collection point, either via reverse vending machines or as a manual collection point. Additionally, it is also possible for schools/charities to act as manual collection points, which enables them to collect additional revenue. Reverse vending machines also feature an option for the deposit to be donated to the Norwegian Red Cross.
In short, the design of the Norwegian DRS has largely been left in the hands of the industry itself, who are incentivised to ensure it operates effectively in order to receive a tax reduction. This has enabled the creation of a truly circular system where everything from the design of the packaging itself to how containers are collected has been meticulously planned. The statistics speak for themselves: with 97% of all plastic drink containers returned and 92% of these containers then re-purposed into new containers, it is fair to say that Norway’s DRS is world leading.
Lessons to Learn
With both the Scottish and UK governments at various stages in their development of a DRS, there are some lessons to be learned from the successful scheme operated in Norway.
Both governments could look at how best to ensure industry engagement when implementing their DRSs. Encouraging citizens to recycle more is unquestionably a good thing for a responsible government to do. However, containers returned can only be recycled if industry is engaged and able to make appropriate changes to their containers to ensure they are as recyclable as possible when returned.
Additionally, it will be important to ensure that there is enough infrastructure in place to allow people to return their single-use containers. This will be of particular significance to more rural areas of the country. Both governments could consider how Norway dealt with this issue, where any business which sells items eligible for the DRS must also act as a collection point. Furthermore, both governments could consider if it is viable to enable schools and charities to act as manual collection points, allowing citizens to donate their deposit to worthy causes. This will provide citizens with options in how they wish to make use of their deposit whilst also providing additional collection infrastructure.
In conclusion, it is evident that Norway operates the most effective DRS in the world, with over 95% of all plastic and aluminium containers recycled via the scheme. Both the Scottish and UK governments would be wise to look at what lessons can be learned from Norway when designing DRSs which will help to tackle the climate emergency. As shown by the experience of Norway, the most effective DRSs are more than just recycling, they are entire system changes.
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Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on recycling and climate change: