Newgate Communications partner Simon Gentry: "A deposit return scheme will depend on the public for success"

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Newgate Communications partner Simon Gentry

Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, it feels as if the UK is becoming a more polarised nation by the day.

From political loyalties (don’t mention the ‘B’ word) to the correct pronunciation of ‘scone’, it can often seem like everyone has an opinion on just about everything. When Defra announced it would be consulting on a deposit return scheme (DRS) for the UK, those in and outside of the industry leapt to their battle stations and began to debate the pros and cons of a UK system.

With a DRS looking extremely likely, it’s imperative that the public understands two simple things: how a scheme works and why they should bother to participate. Looking at how to ‘externalise the internal debate’ is Simon Gentry, partner at comms agency Newgate Communications.

Reverse vending machine manufacturer Diebold Nixdorf recently brought in Gentry and his Newgate team to open up the debate on a DRS, engage policy-makers, advisors and the industry and analyse the best way to curate behavioural change in the public. Boy, do they have their work cut out.

However, it ought to be a relatively pain-free process for Gentry, who has worked in public affairs since becoming politicised during his experiences of living in South Africa during Apartheid.

He has worked on a series of major campaigns including the ethics surrounding genetics, improving awareness of STIs, and the smoking ban. He’s now turned his attention to environmental concerns and educating stakeholders on the complexities of reverse vending. So what elements does he believe a successful English DRS would contain?

“It has to be made as easy as possible, ubiquity is key,” Gentry says. “I see it being set up in the same way as we have an ATM network in the UK. Britain has ATMs everywhere and, as a consequence, patterns of using cash and consumption are different from other countries.

"Like ATMs, we need to make the reverse vending machines as accessible as possible and make the stream as fat as possible so we capture as much PET as we possibly can.”

Rather than the prediction that the machine would be located in supermarkets where collection bins are often installed, Gentry argues the machines should appear wherever people most often visit. This could be community centres, corner shops and even shops that have no link to plastic bottles.

He emphasises flexibility as the key component when it comes to ubiquity, pushing for government to avoid defining where the machines ought to be placed (like some European countries), in order for the machines to have maximum impact.

Public support

But having a detailed network of machines can only work if there is an educated public ready to use them. Gentry says: “A DRS will depend on the public for success so they have to have a stake in it. We’ve been used to talking about systems of this nature behind closed doors and as if it was something quite obscure. The public wasn’t really aware of what was going on, but now these issues are followed with considerable interest.”

Gentry points to mixed messages the public is receiving about their empties, first and foremost the fact they still consider them waste. He says: “Before implementing a DRS, a thorough communications strategy to shift public perceptions needs to be figured out. And that’s a long, hard effort.

“Once the public realises they can get a reward, they’ll realise that packaging is valuable. Suddenly there’s a perception change that clean PET is a very valuable material stream.”

This brings to the surface the main point of contention of a DRS: who is eligible for the value of the material? Currently local authorities reap the rewards, and given years of budget cuts and austerity measures, they are understandably worried about a potential loss to their revenue.

Yet Gentry says it doesn’t have to come down to this. He compares reverse vending machines to having a scheme not dissimilar to business rates applied to them, so depending on where the machine is dictates who soaks up the revenue from the PET bottles.

He says: “The financial side is complicated, but we could make up a system where the material belongs to the company that hosts the machine – this could be a council, it could be a supermarket; everyone should have a stake in the system.”

He also raises the possibility of external parties having their slice of the PET pie. Gentry adds: “It brings a whole new dimension to the value chain. It’s an opportunity for the charity sector because people may say they don’t want the deposit and instead could donate to charity.”

A nationwide plan

News that Scotland would be charging ahead with a DRS undoubtedly got tongues wagging in Westminster. With concerns over waste crime and fraud plus pressure from the outrage following Blue Planet II, it was only a matter of time until England began talk of a similar scheme.

The objective of a DRS is to tackle stagnating recycling rates, but this causes its own set of issues given the devolved nations all have different rates. For example, does Wales, which boasts the third-best recycling rates in the world, really need an interruption to its system?

Gentry says: “A DRS is a landmark step, technically it could be the first UK-wide recycling system and the first time you’ll do the same thing across all devolved nations. It just doesn’t make sense not to have complete unanimity.

“I think the recycling rate would go up in Wales, too. The Welsh can be very proud of the fact they’re very good at recycling, but policy is always changing and improvement is incremental. Not all of the country’s PET is captured right now, there’s no magic bullet for recycling.”

Despite plans to roll out a nationwide network set for years in the future, plenty of trials have begun to pop up all over the UK. Festival-goers can now raise money to grab themselves an extra drink, while some supermarkets are trialling reverse vending machines in their stores.

Yet Gentry is sceptical by how much trials can contribute to the debate. He says: “Trials aren’t necessarily a bad thing but there needs to be a rationale for the trial. We know how consumers use these things because they exist in other countries.”

Rather than helping to educate the public, Gentry worries trials will disengage them. He adds: “If it’s genuine research to find out how consumers want to use them, then that’s fine. But there’s plenty of gimmicks around and at this stage it’s very dangerous. We’ve got four or five years before this thing is up and running, so setting the public expectations of when they will see change is really important.”

There’s plenty of questions left unanswered when it comes to a DRS, with the whys and wherefores still very much up in the air. What is confirmed, at least in principle, is that a DRS could contribute to a greater circular economy and has the potential to expand to additional materials in the future.

Gentry adds: “We need to get some deep and profound consumer insight to figure out what the drivers are for people to want to recycle. The biggest challenge is to find a way of simplifying the message and communicating it so the public have enough trust to remain stable.”

A DRS may at the moment just be a twinkle in Michael Gove’s eye, but with enough education, research and discussion from key stakeholders and industry leaders, he may just pull it off.

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