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Will the bottle return scheme fix our plastic problem?

A view on the proposed bottle return scheme by Acala founder, Hanna Pumfrey

Did you know that in the UK we use around 13 billion plastic drinks bottles per year. That equates to 197 per person or nearly four per week. 3 billion of these bottles, 23%, are not recycled.

The UK has long lagged European nations of the same economic output when it comes to recycling but 2018 seems to have brought about a fresh perspective, from both consumers and the government, and a level of determination to bring about change that hasn’t been seen before.

I’ll say straight off the bat that I think we need a lot more than a bottle return scheme to fix our plastic problem BUT I believe it marks the start of a long road to cutting our reliance on plastic.

So, what is the bottle return scheme?

The Government has announced plans for a consultation scheme that will require shoppers to pay more for single-use bottles and cans in an attempt to get us to both think twice about buying them in the first place cutting waste, as well as boost recycling. The scheme is yet to have its details finalised but at a top level it would see consumers pay between 8-22p more for drinks in plastic bottles. If the bottle is returned, this additional amount would be returned.

Would you return your plastic bottles to get 10p back? One to consider… personally I am not sure it is enough motivation to make me traipse down to the supermarket with 20 bottles or so in my rucksack (I don’t have a car). Not to mention to have had said 20 bottles cluttering up my flat for weeks.

If the consultation period is a success the scheme will be rolled out across England later this year. Scotland has already announced its own similar scheme, and Wales has it’s own version in the pipeline.

Countries already using similar schemes

Countries such as Denmark, Germany and Sweden have been operating similar schemes for years now and recycle on average 90% of their bottles. In Norway, an impressive 95% of their plastic bottles are recycled and they have had a scheme in place since 1999.

What does it mean in practice?

The introduction of a bottle recycling scheme is, quite amusingly, likely to lead to ‘reverse vending machines’ in supermarkets, offices and shopping centres. These machines would allow people to deposit their used bottles and cans in return for the initial deposit. It is then the responsibility of the organisations that own these machines to recycle the items properly. Does it have to be a machine owned by the store that you purchased from? Well, I think that is one of the finer details that still needs to be worked out. Sounds like a great business opportunity to me though for a wily entrepreneur to come in and create a unified system that means people can drop off bottles and any ‘reverse’ machine. 

Supporters of the scheme reference the success of the 5p plastic bag charge as a real-world example of how well such a system can work. According to stats, this scheme has cut single use plastic bag usage by 83% since 2015. Bringing a reusable bag to the supermarket however strikes me as a different kettle of fish. Unlike the plastic bag scheme, to buy their desired drink single use plastic bottle free retailers would need to start providing consumers with coca cola, smoothies, whatever your tipple of choice is, at self-service, in-store filling stations. I’m not entirely against that as an idea, just sounds unlikely to happen soon!

What can we do as consumers?

Not that I want to over simplify this, but one easy way we can make a difference as a consumer is to avoid products packaged in plastic. I know it’s not always that easy, indeed that’s exactly why I started Acala; to make buying plastic free toiletries and cosmetics simpler for people. To a degree though, it is as simple as seeking out plastic free alternatives. Deposit returns have produced meaningful results in many countries but I do think it is important to remember that plastic can only be recycled so many times. The emphasis should be on funding alternative, more-easily recycled or biodegradable containers. For example, wherever possible, at Acala we are using biodegradable and compostable card and paper packaging to just take plastic right out of the equation! So, in my opinion, this is not a long-term solution to single-use plastic, but rather a next step toward changing behaviour.



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