UK: Scotland goes ahead with beverage deposit return scheme

The UK’s first deposit return scheme (DRS) will go live across Scotland on 16 August 2023, helping to recycle billions of bottles and cans every year. Circularity Scotland Ltd, the not-for-profit scheme administrator for the DRS in Scotland, has now signed an agreement with Biffa plc, the UK's second-largest waste-management company, to become the scheme’s official logistics service provider.

The DRS was actually supposed to start this year, but a study showed that this date could no longer be met due to delays caused by the pandemic. From November, however, shops are to take back bottles and cans for recycling on a voluntary basis.

Deposit Refund Systems are collection schemes whereby consumers pay a small amount of money (a deposit fee) for their packaging at the point of purchase and are reimbursed upon the return of the empty packaging to specific collection points.

“The DRS scheme is a key part of Scotland’s move to a circular economy,” said David Harris, CEO of Circularity Scotland. “It is one of the most significant environmental infrastructure projects ever introduced in the UK and the most comprehensive deposit return scheme anywhere in the world.”

Scotland’s DRS will include all single use drinks containers made of PET plastic, metal and glass and will cover both alcoholic and soft drinks. The scheme will not include HDPE plastic containers (the kind used for milk and some other drinks) or lined cardboard containers like Tetrapak.Every item included in the container return scheme will carry a deposit of GBP 0.20 (USD 0.23) which will be refunded to the consumer when they take it back to any return point.

Germany has a similar system in place for over 20 years now and served as a role model also for the new system in Scotland. It became the first big European country to implement “Einwegpfand”, a bottle and can deposit scheme, requiring people to return to stores their bottles, regardless if plastic or glass, and cans to get their deposit back.

All stores in Germany that sell beverages are required to take the respective packaging back and return the deposit to the customer – whether or not that person bought that beverage from them. The comparatively high deposit for plastic bottles of EUR 0.25 (USD 0.25) was chosen because of its very negative environmental impact. The deposit for glass bottles is far lower – between EUR 0.08 (USD 0.08) and EUR 0.15 (USD 0.15) – because glass can be melted down and recycled.

Germany is also probably the only country in Europe where you can see homeless people collecting discarded bottles and cans in parks and from rubbish bins, or walking through trains at stops to collect empty disposable packaging left by travelers.

Dr. Karl Tack, president of the German Mineral Water Association (VDM) said last year that the system is highly effective and achieves a return rate of almost 100%.

The EU's Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), which came into effect on July 2, 2019, introduced a 90% collection target for beverage PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles by 2029 and also mandates that they should contain at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025, and 30% by 2030. Since the EU food safety and quality standards require PET bottles to be of food-grade quality, effective bottle-to-bottle recycling is a prerequisite.

Since Brexit in 2020, Scotland is no longer part of the EU. However, the country still feels committed to these community goals.

"This will be the first scheme of its kind in the UK and one of the most environmentally ambitious and accessible in Europe,” Circular Economy Minister Lorna Slater stated, when details about the DRS were revealed last December.

“Despite calls to water down the scheme by removing materials or waiting for other nations to catch up, we have maintained our ambition and ensured that the scheme will still meet its original target of achieving 90% collection rates by 2024,” she added.

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