/ Shopping, Sustainability

Will you be using reverse vending machines?

If not, why not!? Trials are underway at Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets to make recycling cans and plastic bottles easier. Will they become commonplace?

Earlier in the month we discussed Waitrose’s new refill stations on trial at its Oxford store.

With more than 130 comments, it’s clear that supermarkets doing more to cut down on single-use plastics and other packaging is a passionate area for their customers.

This month, our magazine’s lead story found that only 52% of supermarket packaging is easily recyclable, so it’s clear that more needs to be done.

With that in mind, I’m pleased to see new initiatives popping up, with ‘reverse vending machines’ catching my eye lately.

The new machines, which can be spotted at some Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Co-op stores, allow customers to deposit their used cans and plastic bottles in exchange for money-off coupons towards their shop.

Incentives to recycle

In Sainsbury’s case, customers will receive a 5p coupon for each eligible item returned via the machines.

While I’m sure we all agree that people should be recycling as much as possible anyway, I think incentives are a good way of encouraging more people to get involved.

A few years back, I took part in a Lucozade Sport promotion that offered sports clothing in return for entering codes you could find on the bottles themselves.

I collected hundreds – the majority of them from bottles people discarded after my Saturday football team’s matches (it’s amazing and indeed, a shame, how many plastic bottles are just left behind on the side of a pitch).

With this promotion encouraging me to essentially clean up hundreds of bottles that would otherwise be left behind, could other, similar schemes be used to get more people returning single-use plastics? Do you have any ideas?

There’s lots more to do

It’s great that there are more initiatives appearing to make our shopping more sustainable, such as reusable containers and water bottle refills:

However, going back to the results of our recent investigation, it’s clear that there’s a lot more supermarkets and manufacturers can do to banish single-use plastics and make sure any packaging they do use is minimal, recyclable and correctly labelled, so that shoppers know exactly how they can recycle it.

We want to see the government making labelling mandatory, simple and clear, as well as investing in better infrastructure to ensure that recycling is easy for everyone, regardless of where they live.

For more information on what the government and individual supermarkets are doing, our guide is well worth a read.

We’re also interested in your feedback on the new initiatives and trials that are now appearing regularly at supermarkets. For example, we know from your comments that hygiene is a concern:

Will you be using a reverse vending machine once they’re rolled out to more supermarkets? Have you spotted any other sustainable initiatives at your local stores?

Let us know if you think supermarkets are doing enough, and share your ideas with us.


It’s more a question of remembering to put them into the shopping bag before leaving the house. Like collecting bags to use, this will be easier when it becomes part of the routine. Until then, they go into the recycle bag and are processed by the council. It will be interesting to see what these machines will accept. The initial outlay for the supermarkets will be considerable so that and the vouchers are laudable efforts on their part even if it encourages shoppers through the doors. Good!

I started taking materials to a local recycling point before we had recycling bins and I’m happy to support any initiative that means that we recycle more. For the time being I will continue to use my recycling bin because there is no local Sainsbury.

I wonder about the practicalities of Sainsbury’s bottle collecting machines. If a few people accidentally post bottles containing some old milk the store will soon stink. 🙁

I would prefer to just continue to sort my recycling waste carefully and put it in the recycling bin because I don’t need any incentive to recycle. For me it is a high priority that councils are told to standardise what can be put in bins, across the country. Packaging also needs to be marked very clearly as to whether or not it can be recycled.

I agree with Wavechange’s comments. We have a regular fortnightly collection of recyclable waste which the City council collects reliably and the County council processes. The system is not as transparent as I would like in terms of the ultimate destination of plastic waste [Is it exported? I have never seen a definitive statement]. Given the provision of this convenient and efficient service I cannot see that we would use a facility at the nearby supermarket.

Did the Intro really mean “recycling plastic bottles and cans”? Or does it mean metal cans? It would be far better to have separate receptacles for each type of material.

Every home in our area has a large recycling bin and there is no excuse for not using it or for not making sure that the contents are clean. Most people appear to use the bins correctly and sensibly, but more education is required to encourage the minority of householders who do not do so to cooperate. I strongly support Wavechange’s remarks on the standardisation of recycling arrangements and on package markings.

Thanks, George.

It’ll be interesting to know how they are going to know that the drinks cans have all been bought at a Sainsbury’s shop. It’s a good move though if it cuts waste, encourages recycling, and reduces litter.

Such bottled water as we buy comes in glass bottles which then go in the recycling bin. Manufacturing and transporting glass bottles might not be so good environmentally but re-use of the glass is better than single use of plastic and glass will not generally end up in the oceans.

Marie says:
29 June 2019

The stores that generate the non-recyclable packaging should have to take that back. If they just cherry pick the stuff that’s easy and profitable to recycle, that leaves councils to deal with all the packagingthat’s hard and expensive to process while they also lose the income from the easy recycling. Our council does a pretty good job of collecting food waste and recycling, but most of the supermarket wrapping has to go in the rubbish.

What worries me are the risks from broken glass. It used to be a regular problem on beaches. CLEAR Pet is apparently easily recycled although I believe recycling coloured versions is more problematic.

The risk of injury from broken glass is one reason why plastic bottles have become so common. When PET is recycled, the quality of the product deteriorates, so the best solution is to use reusable bottles or to reuse single-use ones.

There are many glass bottles in use – beer, cider, wine, fizzy drinks for example – so I do not see the slight broken glass risk as a reason to abolish plastic. My bet is the weight of glass and the need to clean it before reusing were the reasons for the move to plastic. Change for the better does bring with it what some might see as penalties. Nothing is perfect but one thing is for sure, plastic use and waste must be tackled without excuses.

There is no doubt that plastic is safer and it’s why pubs etc. often switch to plastic ‘glasses’ for events. I would be more than happy if all single-use plastic drinks bottles were phased out. That would not affect me but I do have plenty of plastic bottles of cleaning materials under the kitchen sink.

While plastic might in principle be safer in one respect, its damage to the planet is more important. I suspect its simpler to write off plastic glasses than glass ones, and therein lies the problem. We need to think of how we can avoid using plastics or, at least, use them for reusable containers. The recycling bit does not solve the problem

This needs to go one step further than simply giving back 5p on each can or bottle. In many other European countries, shoppers pay a deposit on each can or bottle, which is itemised on the receipt separately from the price of the liquid inside it. When consumers feel they are paying a deposit, they feel the need to recover that deposit so they return their empty cans or bottles to the supermarket. In some countries such as Lithuania, supermarkets’ deposit return machines scan the barcode on the product to verify that it’s a product that the supermarket sells or has sold in the past.

This has been going on for decades in some countries. I remember seeing the Love Parade in Berlin many years ago, where revellers had discarded their empty beer bottles in the street. You might perceive this as a litter problem, but not in Germany. A homeless guy then came along with a shopping trolley, putting all the empty beer cans in it, to return them to the supermarket to get €0.08 for each bottle. No doubt he then spent the rebate voucher on food in the supermarket. Littering the street with empty bottles is effectively the same as littering the street with €0.08 coins.

The downside of these deposit schemes is that they don’t work well across borders. I like to buy a year’s supply of beer in other European countries around once per year and bring it back to the UK. In Germany, I would have to pay a €0.25 deposit on each can (as opposed to €0.08 on bottles which are too heavy to transport in large quantities). Therefore I usually buy my German beer in Belgium, which doesn’t have a deposit scheme. This impedes free movement of beer within the EU’s single market, so I’m surprised the EU hasn’t done anything about it.

Deposits are very likely to be introduced by the Scottish Government soon, they have proved much faster than UK Gov in introducing bag charges, deposit schemes etc. https://news.gov.scot/news/deposit-return-scheme

Cannae wait for this to appear at my local Tesco! Especially with the litter louts near me leaving empty cans and bottles in the park every day. Either hubby will clear them as he regularly does, and make a few pennies this time, or the louts now will. 🙂

Most people are too lazy to bother for just a few pence. I saw one man get a few copper coins in change and he threw them on the pavement after leaving the shop. Too much scum and not enough good people. If people bring their own containers then they won’t be able to use the self service checkout as the weight would be wrong so more queuing at the tills and they would probably want to check the content was correct which would take a long time if everyone did it..

George Martin please check your English. It’s not “I think adding incentives ARE a good way of…” but “I think adding incentives IS a good way of…” — if there is only one way it’s IS, several ways would be ARE.

Why bring a grammar lesson into a discussion about recycling? We all understood what was being said. Chill out man!

Pauline says:
29 June 2019

Manufacturers need to use less packaging in the first place, and if packaging is necessary make sure it can be recycled. This will remove all the confusion about what is and isn’t recyclable.

John Duggan says:
29 June 2019

I think any idea to encourage recycling, especially plastic, is worthy of public support. I’m not bothered about the 5p reward incentive. I would prefer the option to donate the 5p to a local, named charity – in the same way that Waitrose do with their “green buttons” scheme.

Isn’t it better to avoid plastic packaging in the first place? I see Glastonbury have stopped using plastic bottles of water; many took reusable metal and glass bottles to be refilled.

A simple Law from government that in 2 years time all containers , what ever made from, MUST be recyclable would focus the minds of producers and shops, whatever their size. In the meantime shoppers can start the process by removing goods from offending non recyclables at the ‘check out’ !
saying, ”I don’t want this , you dispose of it” ok would not be popular with management or person behind perhaps but if enough do it things will change.

Dave says:
29 June 2019

Plastic can’t be recycled an indefinite number of times – maybe 2 or 3. The recycled plastic is of lower quality – you can’t make a clear plastic bottle out of recycled plastic bottles. Sooner or later you finish with a plastic of limited use. Better not to have plastic at all if avoidable

Clare says:
30 June 2019

Please can you ask Sainsbury whether they offer milk, orange juice etc in glass bottles? If they do not then they should start by introducing them and trying to avoid the use of plastic in the first place.

I saw these “reverse vending machines” in use in New York 20 years ago. Homeless people were going around with shopping trolleys collecting discarded empty plastic bottles then feeding them into the machines at the local supermarket. Seems to have taken quite a while for the idea to cross the pond.

Devonshire dumpling says:
1 July 2019

I contacted Sainsbury’s as they now sell their vinegar in plastic bottles when it used to be in glass ones. Their response: – “The carbon footprint of a PET bottle is 2.5 – 3 times less than for glass…….Due to the weight saving of PET vs. glass our vinegar manufacturer saves annually approx. 3,500t of packaging and have reduced the number of trucks on the road by 20%.
Which is best?

When I was young I was sometimes sent out to get our large vinegar bottle refilled by an old man at the allotment club’s shed straight out of the barrel. It was used both for pickling and, decanted into a small flask, as a condiment.

I was fortunate in visiting Basle switzerland, after buying a plastic bottle of water, i did not need to buy another, there were water fountains everywhere and i could fill up all day. i don’t know if the hotel tax covers this but why don’t we have more water fountains, there was one in St James’s Park, however to fill a bottle took ages and there was a queue of people.
If we carry on like this we will destroy the planet. councils and governments should earn there salaries.

Peter, check this out:

They have apps to help you find all the places you can refill for free.

Unfortunately, individuals cannot join this scheme, but perhaps we should not be to embarrassed to ask householders if they will fill our water bottles.

We have such a history of social disobedience, nuisance and vandalism that all attempts in the past to provide free unsupervised water fountains or taps in public places in the UK have failed and the facilities have been disconnected or withdrawn. In my view all places of refreshment and petrol stations should be obliged to provide up to one litre of tap water per request and be entitled to make a charge for it if necessary.

I agree that it should be a duty for such places to provide tap water but maybe a donation box for small change might be better than a charge – if we are serious about encouraging people to move away from single-use water bottles.

I appreciate the problems in the past but wonder if public water taps and fountains might be treated with more respect if installed now.

From New Scientist:

The black soldier fly is the next big thing in sustainability, digesting waste products with minimal greenhouse gas emission. Farming them could save the world


By David Adam

BZZZZZZZ. Most people would find working next to the noise of thousands of flies a little irritating, and perhaps reach for a rolled-up newspaper. But to Keiran Whitaker, it is the soundtrack of a more sustainable future. That, and the promise of hard cash: Whitaker’s company Entocycle is farming the flies in a specialised lab a short walk from Tower Bridge in central London. Within a year, he wants to be shipping them around the country. As food.

These are no ordinary insects. They are bigger than the average housefly but far more sluggish. They don’t eat anything, so they don’t need mouths or digestive systems, which means they can’t bite. They aren’t pests and they can’t carry disease. And as flies go, they don’t even fly that much. When they do, it is like they can’t really be bothered. It is easy to reach out and just grab one.

They are black soldier flies. And if they sound amazing – which they are – then wait until you meet the kids.

The larvae of these flies are the next big thing in sustainability. They can be dried and fed to pets. They can replace fishmeal in the diet of farmed fish and animals, and so help protect the oceans from over-exploitation. They can be swapped for the mountain of soya used in animal feed, so saving the rainforests. They can digest all manner of human wastes without generating a lot of greenhouse gases. They can be processed into a kind of plastic. They have been baked into bread and biscuits and mixed into ice cream. They taste, if you were wondering, a bit like peanuts.

Think how much more could be recycled if people were able to claim their deposit back when putting their recyclable materials in their home recycling bins

Steve – I don’t think people should be offered financial incentives to recycle if their local authority provides a receptacle for recyclable waste and empties it free of charge at least once a fortnight. What could be easier? Everyone should just do it. The money councils raise from recycling waste materials helps pay for the disposal of non-recyclable waste.