Lessons from Norway: Deposit Return Scheme

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.

Final Thoughts

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:

Public transport: lessons from our Nordic neighbours

Public transport is a vital element in the lives of many people. Commuters rely on bus, train, tram and metro services to get them to and from work. Public transport is also crucial for those without cars who need to access education, training, health and social care services.

The state of UK public transport

Recent research by the Urban Transport Group (UTG) has reported important trends in public transport England. Among the findings:

  • Buses remain the most used form of public transport, but service levels and usage have been in decline.
  • There has been rapid growth in rail passenger numbers over the last decade.
  • Patronage on Light Rail systems in England has seen an increase of 44% since 2007/08.

Elsewhere in the UK, there’s a mixed picture on the state of public transport:

  • New legislation introduced by the Scottish Government aims to halt the decline in bus use in Scotland, where passenger numbers fell by 10% over five years. Meanwhile, the rail regulator has demanded improvements to the punctuality of trains in Scotland.
  • Wales has seen a steady decline in bus usage in recent years, although over the same period passenger numbers on trains have increased.
  • Translink, which provides public transport in Northern Ireland has reported that trips by fare-paying passengers increased for the second year in a row, with rail passenger numbers reaching their highest level in 50 years.

Overall, rail passenger numbers in the UK are rising, although the recent disruption to services in the south east and the north of England following timetable changes underlined ongoing dissatisfaction with the standards of service from rail companies. Meanwhile, Britain’s bus network continues to shrink, especially on local routes.

Lessons from Scandinavia

When it comes to public transport, it’s often enlightening to look at how other countries manage. A recent UTG report explored how transport authorities in Sweden, Denmark and Norway are using devolved powers to transform public transport for the better. The report, written by Professor Tom Rye, from the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University, considered various aspects of public transport, including service levels, fares, technological innovations, environmental impact and franchising.

Service levels

The report found that, in comparison with the equivalent city regions in the UK (outside of London), service levels in the Nordic countries are higher, particularly during off-peak times. In rural and low-density suburban areas, a higher level of service is provided since there is an element of cross-subsidy between revenue-generating and loss-making routes. By contrast, in the UK bus deregulation does not allow for comparable levels of cross-subsidy.

Fares

In Scandinavia, as in many other parts of continental Europe, fares are zonal and multi-modal. Passengers can travel on the same ticket by rail, bus, light rail, and in some cities on urban ferries. Journeys are paid for on a stored value or season ticket smartcard. The research found that, in comparison to incomes, fares for frequent users in Scandinavian cities are similar to those in the UK, but season tickets often cover wider geographical areas.

Technological innovations

The report provides examples of significant innovation on vehicle technologies, including smart ticketing. In Norway fares are increasingly supplied as mobile tickets.

Environmental impact

The research found that the Scandinavian countries have ambitious plans for public transport’s role in reducing carbon and toxic emissions. These include low or zero emission bus fleets and modal shifts from other transport modes. Copenhagen’s metro and suburban rail services are a key part of the city’s plan to be the first in the world to be CO2 free by 2025. There will be no diesel-powered buses in Oslo by 2020, and in Sweden Skåne’s bus fleet will run on fossil-free fuel by the same year.

Franchising

Public transport strategies in Norway, Sweden and Denmark are aligned with wider national and sub-national goals for economic development, land use planning and social cohesion. Levels of revenue support for bus services underpin a high quality of service, and levels of public transport use are high (although in Denmark, heavy investment in cycling infrastructure means public transport usage is relatively low).

One of the key features of public transport in Scandinavia is that virtually all bus services have been franchised. Metro and tram services are also provided either through franchising or by the incumbent municipal operator.The report notes that the main impact of franchising of bus services in all three countries has been to reduce costs and increase quality. The authors note that:

“…franchising in these countries and regions gives public sector Passenger Transport Authorities the direct ability to improve aspects of service because they specify and purchase that service from private sector operators. Thus, if they have the resources and are willing to pay for improvements, these can be delivered rapidly, to deliver on policy ambitions.” 

The Scandinavian way

Even as local, devolved and national governments are trying to encourage greater use of public transport, the evidence suggests that in a significant number of British cities – including Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Sheffield, the number of people travelling by public transport is falling.

The UTG report suggests that the Nordic model provides a road map for improvement in the way that UK transport service providers currently deliver urban public transport:

“Scandinavian countries have taken this approach because there is a political and public consensus that public transport is a public service. A public service that has a key role to play in tackling road congestion, reducing greenhouse gases and air pollution. A public service that also spreads the benefits of economic growth and promotes social cohesion through ensuring better connectivity within and between communities – including linking peripheral areas with the main towns and cities that are driving the wider economy.”


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