DRS is helping to facilitate a materials value chain that works for all

Written by: Dr Adam Read | Published:
Dr Adam Read, external affairs director at SUEZ

Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) are very much flavour of the moment. Since the summer months we have heard the Scottish environment secretary Roseanne Cunningham openly come out in favour of a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and cans in Scotland, with a range of organisations are now working together north of the border to assess the scope, design and possible implementation issues around such a scheme.

According to Zero Waste Scotland “in aggregate, local authority kerbside services in Scotland could benefit financially from a DRS by between £1.3 million and £9.2 million per annum, and as more material is captured so the better the financial implications for local authorities”. That seems compelling and when you add in the potential savings from avoided litter clearance of between £3m and £6m per annum you can see why the environment secretary is so convinced of the need to take Scotland down this route.

Things are never as straight forward as they seem

The rise in support for DRS in Scotland has been met with a mixed response, and retailers have been quite vocal in raising their concerns as it is they who most expect to be asked to handle, store and dispose of the returned containers. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) which represents the UK’s retail sector has voiced its opposition to the measure, claiming that it could drive up costs for retailers.

But they have not been alone in sharing their concerns. Some local authorities have expressed fears that a DRS would cut their recycling revenue, as residents would favour such schemes rather than putting out bottles and cans for kerbside collections.

LARAC, which represents council recycling officers across the UK, is among those to favour other methods to boost recycling, including direct charging of consumers for waste they produce, and ensuring that appropriate funding from producers gets to local authorities to expand and enhance the collection services they design and operate.

Other critics of DRS suggest that they are costly, particularly where they involve reverse vending machines at supermarkets or on street corners, whilst they can also be open to the potential for fraud.

So would such a scheme work?

In simplistic terms deposit return schemes see consumers pay a deposit on their product / packaging which is refundable once the empty bottle or container is returned to a designated point. Simple enough for all those of us old enough to remember the Corona bottles of the 1970s and 1980s that I so religiously took back to the local newsagent to get an uplift on my weekly pocket money. But I appreciate for the younger generation this many seem a little odd given their experiences with improving kerbside collections in the last 20 years or so.

However, the Green Alliance has identified DRS as the single most effective action to cut the number of plastic bottles getting into the seas and oceans, an issue that has gathered a huge amount of media attention in recent months. Its analysis suggest one-third of plastic litter comes from bottles, which could be addressed head on by a DRS.

There have been several successful models in Europe, such as Sweden’s ‘Keep Sweden Tidy’ DRS which claims to have removed 83% of plastic and aluminium from waste stream. Whilst SUEZ have first-hand experience of working with DRS in France and Sweden, which have resulted in higher materials capture rates and lower associated litter levels.

The US has reported a substantial difference in recycling rates between states without a DRS (on average 30% recycling) and those with (averaging 70% recycling) regardless of the actual deposit rate.

States like Oregon and Michigan reported over 80% reduction in beverage containers post introduction of their DRS, and even New York reported a greater than 70% reduction, whilst litter levels also dropped but less significantly (on average by 30% across the States investigated).

Now clearly, the impact of a DRS (or similar take-back scheme which might be brand and / or company specific) on overall recycling levels depends on the effectiveness of the established kerbside collection systems and on-the-go collection systems available. And this is one of the arguments put forward by UK authorities for not moving towards such a system, that our schemes are effective, well-developed and not in need of radical overhaul.

But, it is generally accepted that DRS and take-back schemes capture target materials in a cleaner form, a factor not to be underestimated when reducing contamination of the recyclate stream resulting from kerbside collection is a significant challenge for the UK and our international commodity markets.

National Sword and Chinese import bans are forcing the quality issue up the agenda, so perhaps DRS has a role to play in maximising the quality of certain target material streams? Clearly, DRS needs more careful consideration?

The UK DRS agenda?

Fast forward a few months since the Summer furore in Scotland and we have seen a great deal of attention from different groups in England on this DRS issue. The Environmental Audit Committee has re-opened its investigation into disposable coffee cups and plastic bottles, allowing new evidence to be submitted during September 2017 to the investigation which had been convened much earlier in the year.

Therese Coffey and Michael Gove have both openly discussed the possible benefits of DRS and have extended the consultation period for Defra’s DRS and litter call for evidence through October and November 2017.

SUEZ welcomed the opportunity to respond to this consultation, and I authored our reply which not only highlighted our successful corporate experience of DRS, but also offered Defra the opportunity to pilot a scheme in one of our contract authorities using equipment we are shipping over from France to enable reverse vending to be properly trialled in a target location to assess both capture rates and litter impacts. Watch this space!

October also saw the launch of the Keep Britain Tidy funded report on DRS and littering. According to the Eunomia written report local authorities could save up to £35m a year if a DRS for drinks containers was introduced in England, whilst additional savings would be available from reduced litter clean-up.

Evidence from other countries were used to generate the potential savings, with schemes in the USA, Norway and Germany, showing that collection rates for the target materials could exceed 90% (in the UK we believe that plastic bottle capture rates are below 60%) whilst reducing littering. Again compelling evidence for the need to rethink certain aspects of our waste management system, to one that has more elements potentially in common with our continental cousins.

Making progress now and tomorrow

Now the sector remains divided on whether a DRS is the right thing to take our recycling agenda forward, with commentators clamouring for product taxes, redistribution of funding and greater innovation as potential alternatives to DRS. But what we can say with certainty is that DRS is going to get a full and robust hearing in the coming months- but is that enough?

Probably not, because DRS for one material stream could have unintended consequences, displacing materials, or even increasing the overall system costs, hence why Scotland is taking its time to design its planned new scheme.

A DRS starting with plastic containers is a practical first step towards more circular industrial practices. But DRS on plastic bottles alone is not enough, and any DRS approach must be part of a more strategically planned, integrated application of an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime across all forms of resource usage, materials and packaging production and their collection, reuse and recycling across the supply chain.

This is where we need to go, and I hope Defra (and the Scottish Government) are willing to embrace this fully in their current deliberations. EPR embodies the producer responsibility principle perfectly, and having DRS for one material really won’t solve our problems in isolation.

The plastic bottle (and possibly coffee cups next) DRS must be embedded in a wider waste & resources strategy, where other target materials such as glass, plastic trays, tetrapaks are also captured in a cleaner and more effective way. So with Defra currently working behind the scenes on its planned new Waste & Resources strategy, which will be out for consultation in 2018, I hope and pray that the consultation on DRS in England and the ongoing thinking about such a schemes delivery in Scotland are brought to the table for serious consideration and integration.

But if we are serious about tackling the UK’s litter problem head on, then DRS again is not going to work in isolation. Chewing gum and cigarette butts constitute a major component of street litter, which is reported to cost local authorities in England and Wales £60 million and £140 million respectively in annual clean-up costs.

A simple chewing gum levy and a tobacco levy placed on the manufacturers of these products would transfer these costs out of council budgets, and may have a more significant impact on litter levels than a DRS. That’s food for thought, and is something that we have fed into the debate already.

Act now, benefit later

So, I implore you all to feed into the DEFRA call for evidence on DRS and litter, and to embrace these new ways of thinking. Change is never easy, and our current approaches to waste collection and local government funding may seem comfortable, even if they aren’t as effective as we would all like.

Add to that a failing PRN system and you can see why there is groundswell of support to look more closely at a DRS. The evidence is compelling and I think Defra need to build momentum in the waste & resource space and DRS could be part of that new agenda that helps put waste and litter at the forefront of everyone’s minds when they are at the shops, on the go or at home. The next few months will be interesting, so please join the debate.

In January 2018, I will be working with SUEZ and Oakdene Hollins to look more closely at how a DRS might be introduced in England and what the financial flows should look like. We do not want local authorities to be out of pocket, and I fully understand their concerns, so we intend to develop a think piece about how the finances might work and how the relationships between retailers, waste management companies and the local authorities could be developed for the benefit of all. So once again, watch this space.

In the meantime if you are interested in learning more about DRS then grab a copy of the ZWS or Keep Britain Tidy reports or join the CIWM webinar on 7th November @ 1pm (register here: https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/6010860031167076611).

Each month, Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director at Suez, discusses the big issues within the sector.


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