Scotland Climate action and sustainable development

Designing a world leading recycling system for Scotland

Image by wal_172619 from Pixabay

Scotland is planning to implement a deposit return scheme (DRS) for recyclable containers within the next two years. The plan aims to capture 90% of recyclable containers, and would involve a refundable 20p deposit. For example if you bought a bottle or can of let’s say Irn Bru from a shop, you would pay 20p more than usual, take it back to the shop when you’re finished, and exchange it for your 20p. This would apply to all retailers, large and small, and would be consistent across Scotland. I attended an event by the Green Alliance, a thinktank and not-for-profit, discussing the deposit return scheme as well as other issues for recycling in Scotland, chaired by journalist Lesley Riddoch and featuring prominent speakers and a panel event.

Many other countries in Europe already have some sort of deposit return scheme, including Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Estonia. Norway has an impressive 97% recycling rate for plastic bottles as a result, and Scotland is hoping to bring this momentum to the UK. Libby Peake, senior policy advisor at the Green Alliance, spoke about their ‘Closing the loop’ report, outlining four steps towards a 100% recycling rate of aluminium packaging, through a holistic policy approach. The four steps are:

  1. Create an ‘all-in’ DRS
  2. Improve kerbside services
  3. Ensure best practice at sorting plants
  4. Recover the remainder from incinerator bottom ash

A lot of the focus when it comes to recycling is on plastic, but we need to remember it is not the only material that should be recycled, and aluminium is equally as important.

We also heard from Iain Gulland, chief executive at Zero Waste Scotland. He spoke about his goals for the organisation as well as national and local policy frameworks for achieving zero waste and recycling, and outlined the key issues. The slow rate of progress, the issues of non-recyclable packaging and the patchiness of collection services are among the barriers to progress. He emphasised the importance of encouraging a refillable culture, citing Waitrose’s refill stations as one example.

The panel discussion consisted of Libby and Iain joined by two other panellists: Jenni Hume, campaign manager at Have You Got the Bottle? (a group campaigning for DRS in Scotland) and Marcel Arsand, sustainability manager at Ball Beverage Packaging Europe. Libby made an interesting point with regards to a question about the usefulness of biodegradable plastic – people are going for a substitution for plastic as a first response, rather than placing the issue with single-use packaging as a whole. In addition, people are more likely to litter biodegradable products, and there isn’t much clarity over what ‘biodegradable’ actually means. Iain said that transparency is key when it comes to talking about what is done with recyclable waste, whether it is sent abroad or not. Marcel spoke extensively about the flat  rate of 20p, citing  Germany where the aluminium can economy was demolished overnight. Shoppers will see a 12-pack of cans, which would cost them £2.40 in a deposit, or a 2-litre bottle, which would cost them 20p, so what are they more likely to choose? Aluminium is overall a better material than plastic for a number of reasons, so it is important that this unintended consequence doesn’t happen in Scotland. Ideally producers should not move to using less sustainable packaging that won’t be included in the DRS, such as cartons, due to cost. Finally, the debate ended with a call to improve the international management of the movement of plastic waste from developed to developing countries, since low-quality plastic often ends being transported, and recently countries including China are refusing to accept this type of recycling.

Scotland is poised to become the first part of the UK to implement a DRS – but what about the other three jurisdictions? One thing that was emphasised was how the scheme should be countrywide, to reduce fraud and stop producers playing the system. Scotland can take the lead, as it did with charging for plastic bags before England, with delivering an innovative programme that should be in place countrywide.

You can learn more about Scottish Government plans to implement a deposit return scheme here, in collaboration with Zero Waste Scotland.

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