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Few would dispute that we should all recycle more and waste less. But when it comes to drinks packaging our national deposit return schemes, or DRS, are the best way to cut litter and create a more circular economy. It's a question that's dividing opinion as Scotland moved to add an extra 20 pence to the cost of each bottle or can of drink in August 2023, which will be refunded on return to a shop or vending machine.
Similar schemes have been operating in Europe, North America, Israel, and parts of the Caribbean and Australia. Canada was the first to launch legally binding deposit returns in 1970. But it's Germany that tops the table of DRS recovery. 98 per cent of all drinks cans, plastic, and glass bottles sold in Germany are returned. Norway ranks second in DRS recovery at around 92 per cent.
Before Germany's deposit system was introduced in 2003, around 3bn disposable drinks containers were dumped across the country each year. Now, such waste is negligible as consumers seek to recoup up to 25 euro cents typically added to the price of every can and bottle. So what's not to like, especially in countries like the UK where more than 8bn drinks containers were wasted in 2019?
The designer of Scotland's DRS plan says the scheme should be funded by drinks producers, unredeemed deposits, and the sale of recyclable materials. But critics claim store owners and shoppers will face extra costs and inconvenience to process returns and that local councils will lose income as metals, glass, and other recyclables currently gathered from household rubbish collections are redirected to the DRS scheme.
But another study of eight councils with varying recycling rates found that savings from reductions in litter and collection volumes would outweigh any losses. Packaging experts say deposit schemes save raw materials, energy, and CO2 emissions. But not all environmental benefits are clear cut. For example, in some cases, the German DRS regime has made single-use plastics more popular than glass and other refillable containers.
Single-use plastics save businesses the extra cost of transporting and cleaning refillables, but the process of shredding and reforming also uses energy and creates emissions. It may be the world champion of DRS recovery, but even Germany's environment agency admits there's no one-size-fits-all silver bullet when it comes to beverage container recycling.