For those of us who remember buying a particular brand of fizzy pop in the 1980s, the concept of a deposit return scheme (DRS) – the introduction of which is currently being planned by ministers – is not new.
It involves a small additional tax being applied at the initial point of purchase which is subsequently returned when the bottle, can or tin is returned via a reverse vending machine. The machine identifies the item and calculates the sum to be repaid.
Advocates of DRS say it will incentivise recycling, reduce litter and lead to savings for local government. But some uncertain consequences remain, notably that a DRS could represent direct competition for existing municipal services. A DRS has the potential to diminish the overall utility of universal, local authority waste services. It would target waste materials which are higher in value and more convenient to collect. Councils may be left picking up the least attractive elements of domestic waste.
One might ask whether residents will continue to separate waste types efficiently when different financial outcomes and different collection locations are introduced? Another potential impact is on the thousands of refuse collection vehicles, bottle banks, staff and facilities that are funded by local authorities directly or through contracts with waste management companies. There may also be impacts on plans for councils to operate commercially to offset financial pressures.
If a DRS is introduced this year as planned, there is a short period to influence the type and nature of the scheme. We should really push for certain outcomes.
First, we need to see the forthcoming government waste and resources strategy make purposeful commitments about reprocessing capacity. There are successful plastics recyclers who are producing high quality products from council-collected recyclables. All processors need support to address issues such as the Chinese ban on recycled material imports. If we can’t make products with recycled content in or close to the UK, then a DRS will be a pointless exercise.
We will also need our private sector partners to be willing, transparent and even-handed in renegotiating contracts which are affected by the DRS’s impact on the supply chain. Central government needs to be aware of the potential financial downsides for councils, providing relief and clear guidance. Local authorities should also collectively lobby for transitional support on policies, recycling targets and financial impacts. It is important to ensure that a DRS’s introduction represents evolution, not revolution.
Finally, it must be made possible for councils to install their own DRS reverse vending terminals. Why not establish a DRS system which allowed residents to allocate the redeemed tax to pay for on-street parking, green waste collections or to support a specific school campaign or care service? This would change what is currently foreseen as an individual incentive into a community one.
In short, if a comprehensive DRS is going to be introduced, we need to make sure that we don’t chuck the council baby out with the old recycling bath water.
Oliver Burt, re3 project director, a waste management partnership between Bracknell Forest Council and Reading and Wokingham BCs