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?

Yes (86%, 1,769 Votes)

No (11%, 232 Votes)

Don't know (3%, 65 Votes)

Total Voters: 2,066

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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?.


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.

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.

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.

James Jarvis says:
26 January 2019

I agree Malcolm, why shouldn’t kids make a few quid collecting recyclables. In the end if it is helping clean up this world of ours, it has to be a good thing.

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).

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.

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? 🙂

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.

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.

It would be helpful to know if the charge applies to milk bottles. I assume it applies just to water and soft drink bottles, and to drinks cans.

We are one of a dying breed who still engage the services of a milkman twice a week – leaving out glass empties that get recycled and reused. It costs us a little more but we see it as environmentally better than any of the plastic schemes.

In principle the introduction of Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) would increase the amount of plastic bottles recycled. Currently the UK recycles only 43% compared with Germany’s 99%.
Sadly this is not the whole picture. The U.K. Has developed a kerb side collection system. In contrast Germany choose a DRS approach, but it is by no means perfect. The result is people having to store plastic and glass bottles to return them to the DRS points. Some supermarkets, Aldi & Lidel, will only accept bottles purchased from them!
Another consequence of this approach in Germany has been an overall increase in the use of plastic bottles and a reduction in the use glass recyclable bottles – simply this is to reduce the weight and volume of bottles that people have to take back to the DRS points.

In my opinion, the introduction of DRS will be a retrogressive step and could eventually lead to the end of kerb side recycle collection services. It could also lead to an increase in the use of plastic bottles.

I would like to see more emphasis on education and more public recycle bins to make it easier for people to recycle single use plastic bottles.

I’m pretty skeptical of anyone paying more for altruistic reasons. I think what we’ve seen time and time again is the price is king and everything else is largely irrelevant. Sure, there might be some occasions when the customers might boycott something especially bad, but I can’t think of many times when people decide to pay more for altruistic reasons – at least not in a sustainable way.

See my note above, Richard. I do – for milk.

I also point blank refused any diesel cars during the incentive window, preferring to spend a little extra on petrol electric hybrid for actually slightly worse economy, because I was already there with the damage to the air

That’s fair and maybe I was wrong with ‘anyone’, I think a more accurate statement might be ‘enough people to justify the effort’.

I’ve no doubt there are fantastic people who are altruistic about their purchases and willing to spend more to support what they believe, but I’m not sure there are enough people to make it worthwhile for companies to change their ways.

It would be interesting to learn how deposit return schemes work successfully in some other countries. I expect that if we have a workable scheme then people will learn to use it, in the same way that many have managed to cope without single-use bags in shops.

Do you really know how much long term damage your petrol hybrid will do to the environment? do not take a holier than tthow attitude on this on. there are health consequenced to burning petrol & having it in the environment. Everyone is carefully ignoring the carcenogenic effects of benzine from petrol and the long term environmental effects of producing and disposing of your car batteries. Have you ever considered how much energy is used & CO2 liberated digging for the materials for batteries?. Electricity still needs to be produced if you plug in your car & Electric cars still produce particulates from the tyres & brakes (more than from other cars due to their additional weight). It is very far from being black & white but I suspect the rush to electric vehicles is part of another scam, the demonisation of diesel is a good sales ploy for the car industry.

We have recent Conversations on vehicle excise duty and electric vehicles, Duncan, but this one is on the forthcoming charges for plastic bottles and cans.

Duncan has valid points – and I will answer them in the Electric Vehicles conversation. I shall include “Duncan Watt” in the answer so it should be easy to locate.

Presumably the UK will not try to reinvent the wheel but will copy what is happening in countries that are operating a deposit return scheme already, adapting them to best suit our needs. It would be useful to know more about our government’s plans.

The technology exists for large scale recycling segregation. It may not be seen as commercially viable but it might actually be so.

In years gone by the whole of our rubbish was lumped together. Nothing recycled – all buried or burnt. A single collection lorry and friendly dustmen who used to come to the back door and collect the dustbin and return it having emptied it. One can argue the inefficiencies of this – but the dustmen were cheerful engaging souls – and got a healthy “thank you” at Xmas.

We are now sorting out our rubbish in more ways than one can imagine, with a whole raft of make-shift containers storing variously glass, cardboard, plastic, food, metal, compost…. No bad thing for education, but a nightmare for precious storage space,easy to accidentally screw up – and a great hunting ground for foxes etc.

Instead of one cart per week, clean bin every week, and the fit folk (dustmen) doing the walking, we have several collection vehicles – (not every week, meaning some commodities, plastic, tins, glass, cardboard), and if some of the plastic (thinking particularly pet food pouches) are not thoroughly cleaned, they fester for a fortnight, making the recycling area at best unpleasant and at worst a breeding ground for botulism etc.

If the technology to segregate were brought to fruition (which would involve a huge investment to turn it from a low Technology Readiness Level to a viable product), we could return to a much simpler segregation by the user – food scrap, compost and “the rest” – which could all easily be collected again in one wagon weekly… Just a thought – and apologies if off topic

It is not a problem that will go away – we waste far too much packaging materials. It is a question of how best we tackle the waste. Abolish unnecessary packaging and simplify the materials used in the remainder to make collection and recycling simpler seem to me sensible ways forward.

On PET conversion (plastic bottles):

I find it difficult to believe that recycled PET will have the same properties as virgin plastic. Recovery of plastics results in a decrease in relative molecular mass and that results in inferior plastics.

You could ask the guy from Unilever who prepared the video.

I would rather wait for advice from an independent source. It’s well established that during recycling of PET the polymer chains undergo hydrolytic and thermal degradation, resulting in an inferior product. There are possibilities for extending the chains but I believe that this is relatively expensive.

Whilst I’m sure they are not totally independent:
“Recycling Adds to PET’s Sustainability
The outstanding recyclability of PET further enhances it sustainability, providing an effective and efficient means of recapturing and reusing the energy and resources of its raw materials.

Although many Americans assume PET can only be recovered and recycled into non-food items such as carpet, clothing and engineering applications, technological advances over the past decade have made it possible to create recycled PET that meets the same hygienic and safety standards as virgin PET.

The closed-loop recycling of used PET bottles into new food-grade PET containers is one of the most desirable means of dramatically extending the environmental benefits and sustainability of PET as a packaging material.”

Seems a good way to deal with our waste.

It’s a trade association representing plastics manufacturers, Malcolm. I don’t understand how it is allowed to use .org rather than .com in its web address. 🙁

PET and other plastics can and are recycled into a variety of useful products but as I have said and could support with peer reviewed articles, the quality of the product deteriorates when recycled. It works best when clean factory waste is recycled.

The point seems to be that PET can be extremely usefully recycled, which is surely what matters.

I don’t see why it matters if they are a trade association if they provide useful and truthful information. .org? Maybe it is a non-profit organisation but I don’t see it matters when it properly describes its role.

Might be relevant, but I fear we are straying from the main point:
“The behavior of recycling PET obtained from post-consumer water bottles when treated in a melt mixer under different conditions has been investigated in order to better understand the processing conditions that can reduce or avoid the hydrolytic chain scission. During processing both degradation (chain scission) and chain extension occur. When the processing is carried out under a nitrogen atmosphere the latter mechanism prevails leading to a polymer having larger molecular weight.

This seems to suggest that “It’s well established that during recycling of PET the polymer chains undergo hydrolytic and thermal degradation,” and ” a decrease in relative molecular mass” need not necessarily be the case. Or does it? I’m no expert.

I came across the same article but it’s rather old and although I have access it’s not freely available. Here is a more recent review that has been cited many more times and can be downloaded:

I expect that it will become possible to recycle PET into food grade material if care is taken to ensure that the starting material is clean but at present it is as far as I know cheaper to make new PET. That’s for the future but many plastics can be recycled into a wide variety of useful if not very attractive products.

I agree we are getting off-topic.

I don’t think price should be the determining factor in recycling (raw PET csn be cheaper than recycled). it is saving resources that also needs to be considered – oil in the case of plastics – and protecting the planet from waste PET. Use it again is better than it going to landfill. As the topic is about recycling plastic bottles we must think of reuse and recycle not waste.

I made that point and without a requirement to use recycled material,
manufacturers will continue to use the cheapest material unless there is legislation requiring use of recycled PET or it becomes a cheaper alternative.

We pay to dispose of waste materials so we might as well pay for their reuse in some way if that is what it takes. We need innovative solutions to waste, not just letting matters go on as they always have.

One solution would be to make tap water readily available so that people can fill up their water bottles conveniently.

Some commercial organisations have claimed that it is unsafe to refill ‘single-use’ water bottles, either because of bacterial contamination or because of toxic materials may be leached from the PET. It’s easy to clean bottles and if toxic materials were leached from the plastic then that would happen during the longer period between manufacture and use of bottled water.

From the Natural Hydration Council, a trade body for companies that make bottled water:

33. Can I re-use my plastic bottle?
Single-use plastic water bottles are not designed for re-use. In the interest of hygiene and consumer safety it is not advised to re-use single-use bottles. All PET plastic and glass water bottles are recyclable and you can find out how to recycle in your local area by visiting Recycle Now.

They might not be designed for reuse but they certainly can be.

34. What is the difference between a single-use plastic water bottle and a refillable plastic water bottle?
A single-use plastic water bottle is bought containing water. The bottles are made of PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) plastic which is lightweight, 100% recyclable and is not designed for re-use.
Refillable plastic water bottles, also known as personal water bottles or sports water bottles, are bought empty. As they are designed for reuse they are made of a hard, rigid plastic such as polycarbonate.

I would not be keen on storing drinking water in a polycarbonate bottle, because of BPA leaching. Maybe the amounts are small and safe according to the EFSA, but I would rather refill a PET bottle, which is free from BPA.

We need retailers, of all kinds, to stock bulk supplies of products as an option for customers to take an empty container and ‘fill-up’; thus eliminating unnecessary packaging and buying only the needed quantity, and surely it could be more attractively priced (than prepackaging) too. It’s time has come.

That’s a good idea.

Of course it always used to be that way – remember going into the corner shop to get a quarter of dolly-mixture weighed out into a paper bag? Used to love that array of glass jars….

It could, and there are many other uses of waste plastics. Unfortunately the problem is that much of the waste is not being properly recycled, hence the need ways of increasing this. Deposit return schemes are one solution but some of the problems have been pointed out.

How did we get on in the days before single-use bottles and drink cans? Many of us are managing to take our own bags to the supermarket and perhaps we could manage without the bottles and cans.

It could, but I believe the problem is to reduce waste and the resources it consumes, not find other ways of disposing of it.

Exactly!! The German experience of DRS has resulted in an increase in the use of plastics!

As I said before, how did we get on in the days before single-use bottles and drink cans? Some of us avoid buying them but others might need encouragement.

If I remember correctly, we have “beer at home” from Davenports and a nice little song to go with it 😀

How sweet:

I frequent one of the village pubs infrequently. No plastic or even glass bottles needed.

Roger said “Could adding plastic to bitumen in roads be the answer?”

From his link:
MacRebur’s® waste plastic pellets are fully melted into the bitumen within the asphalt mix and so no microbeads are present in the mix – in fact, with MacRebur’s® MR products included, less bitumen leaches into rivers and streams.

So what does happen to the material when it wears off/down? It has to go somewhere.

Rivers, streams, the oceans. Apart from the plastic, bitumen is a cocktail of chemicals, some not very good for the environment.

I may have overlooked something in an earlier post but nobody seems to have remarked that a small refundable deposit on returnable glass bottles used to be the norm. In fact, when at university I used to work in the bottling plant of the local brewery during the long vacation. Empty bottles in crates came in at one end, were washed and re-filled, and exited out the other. If it could work then, why shouldn’t it work again?

Dromo – this works well with doorstep delivery milk too.

I doubt that most people have the option of having their milk delivered unless they use an online supermarket, in which case it will come in plastic bottles. 🙁

As far as I am aware breweries and soft drink manufacturers don’t even use returnable bottles for deliveries to pubs.

Ian M says:
17 April 2018

We have a good roadside collection service which means all our plastic bottles go into the local councils recycling process.
To have to take them to a recycling point for a refund would be extra work for us for zero benefit, in effect penalising us just because others aren’t using the recycling options available to them.

Why do we have plastic bags at all, we used to have paper bags and carriers. Some places still serve products in paper, so why aren’t supermarkets bringing them back.

Our local greengrocer has persevered with paper bags for the last 30 years, with plastic (larger) for carrying spuds and the like.

The deposit/ refund scheme should only be seen as stage 1 of a process. Manufacturers need to be incentivised (penalised) to move to more environmentally friendly packaging within a fixed time frame to minimise or remove most of the problem.
Additionally, what about other plastic packaging? Plastic bottles only one issue and the “incentivisation” needs to go across all products and sectors.

I like a number of people are disabled and have our goods delivered. I would not be able to return the cans or bottles to the retailer but do meticulously use my councils recycling guidelines. How could this system work practically for people like me ?