Bottle charges: would you pay more to tackle the plastic crisis?

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has put forward plans for a deposit return scheme on plastic drinks bottles and cans. Our guest author, Will Coultas, asks: is this a step towards combating our waste problem or an unfair new levy on consumers?

People in England could soon have to pay a deposit when they purchase drinks that will be refunded upon the return of the container, under plans announced by Environment Secretary, Michael Gove on Wednesday 28 March.

The deposit scheme would likely cover single-use glass and plastic bottles, as well as steel and aluminium cans. The details are subject to consultation, with the amount of the deposit yet to be decided.

Scotland has already announced plans for a similar scheme and in Wales, ministers said they want to help implement a UK-wide system.

Plastic problem

The scheme seeks to counter Britain’s dismally low rates of recycling, where just 57% of plastic bottles are recycled.

This is starkly contrasted with nations that already use deposit return schemes, where between 80% and 95% of plastic is recycled.

And Britain can’t export it’s plastic problem for very much longer: the Chinese government recently banned plastic waste imports, halting the staggering 500,000 tons a year of plastic recycling the UK has been sending to the country.

Deposit schemes abroad

The details of the government’s plan are still to be decided, but in other countries where deposit return schemes have been introduced, the price of drinks increased by between 8p and 22p.

This is then refunded to the customer upon return of the bottle, either from the point of purchase or through ‘reverse vending machines’ installed in supermarkets and recycling points.

In Germany, retailers and the beverage industry bear the costs and keep the unclaimed deposits in return. The German system is estimated to have cost £600m to set up, with a further £700m in maintenance annually. However, in other nations, the costs are passed onto the consumer.

Additionally, many countries using deposit return schemes have a centralised non-profit system that operates the collection points and recoups any unclaimed deposits.

The new 5p bag charge?

Single-use plastic has been a topic of much debate here on Which? Conversation. In his recent convo, ‘What are your solutions to our plastic waste problem?’, community member Malcolm R questioned the need for plastic bottles, asking: ‘Do we always need bottles [for liquids], or could [they] often be sold in pouches?’

While in our January convo, Who is responsible for reducing our plastic waste?, community member Patrick Taylor stated:

‘For effective action to occur, the raw material has to be made more expensive so that alternatives become economically viable.’

Interestingly, the introduction of the 5p levy on single-use carrier bags in 2015 has seen consumption reduced by 83%, so could this new plastic bottle deposit scheme have the same effect?

What do you think of the government’s proposal? Is this the answer to our plastic bottle waste problem?

Are you happy to pay more for plastic bottles and be refunded when you return them?
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This is a guest contribution by Will Coultas. All views are Will’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

Comments
Member

The idea is good in principal but all good plans seem to get abused.

If there is money to be made from returning empties, there will already be scavengers rifling through recycling bins, stockpiling them for financial gain.

Kids are going to get hurt rifling through rubbish bins hoping to make a few quid putting extra strain on A&E.

Where there’s muck, there’s brass, so ways will be found to re-acquire returns for further monetary gain.

And what of those who do recycle in our kerbside collections? Do we forfeit our deposits or save them up for a recycling bank? Will there be enough recycling banks to cope?

We already see chancers checking skips, I don’t want to see them going through my recycling bins.

Member

I am happy to take bottles for recycling but suggest that one or more pilot schemes are set up to investigate possible problems, such as those mentioned by Alfa. This would allow different approaches to be tested to see which works best. I fear that a minority will find ways of cheating the system to make money.

Member

I support such a method to ensure we recycle more materials, and it will maybe change the way producers think of packaging. It seems to work elsewhere.

When I was young most glass bottles for pop and beer had a 3d deposit. We got the money back when we went to the shop to replenish supplies. And if we had opportunistic finds they were added to the claim. I don’t remember any of us being hurt. (3d – 1.25 new p – in those days bought you a bag of chips, 1½ pkts Polo mints, or a return ticket on the tram to the centre of town).

8 billion aluminium drinks cans the UK gets through in a year.
The energy required to make one new can from scratch will make 20 cans from recycled ones.”

“Each year the average UK household uses 480 plastic bottles , but only recycles 270 of them – meaning nearly half (44%) are NOT put in the recycling.
This means that nationally, of the over 35 million plastic bottles being used every day in the UK, nearly 16 million plastic bottles aren’t being put out for recycling.
” That’s nearly 6 000 000 000 a year.

Member

Does anyone else see scope for enterprise here? At 6 billion bottles a year and 5p deposit, say, there is an up to (sorry regulars 🙁 ) £300 million business up for grabs – door to door collection by the scouts, charities or similar (even Which?Bottle perhaps if they spot the bonus potential).

Member

I already recycle my plastic bottles; the local authority collects them. So it’s less convenient for me if I have to return them for a deposit refund, especially as I do not own a car.

Member

diggle, you will still, no doubt, have them collected but a deposit scheme may provide an incentive to the many who do not currently bother to recycle. Will the local authority be able to claim the deposits on those it collects? 🙂

Member

For those of us who already bother to use kerbside recycling collections, having to mess about with deposits and refunds will be a classic case of “no good deed should go unpunished”.

Fortunately, this only affects drinks bottles as opposed to all of the plastic containers already covered by kerbside collections.

Member

Let’s have a scenario…..
You buy a bottle of coke while out sightseeing, the shopkeeper charges you 5p extra.
You put the empty bottle in a recycling bank and get 5p.

What happens to the 5p you pay the shopkeeper, does he pocket it?
Does he pay it somewhere?
Who funds the 5p in the recycling bank?

Another scenario…
You buy 12 bottles of coke from the supermarket and take them home.
You put the empties in your recycling bin.

Does the supermarket keep your 60p?
Do you forfeit your 60p deposit paid to the supermarket?
Are the council going to count them and refund you? don’t think so
Do you get your car out, drive to a recycling bank to get your 60p refund?
Okay, it’s only 60p, but those 60p’s add up.

It seems to me, there are an awful lot of overheads in running a deposit/recycling scheme…. How to fund/refund the scheme, transport costs, bin costs, staffing costs, management costs……..

I am not saying it is a bad idea, but it will require very careful management. If our kerbside recycling bins contain less, councils will see an excuse for less collections.

It is also going to put the price up on staples like milk in plastic bottles.