Cleaning up with a deposit refund system

MSP: “We will introduce a deposit refund scheme on drinks containers in Scotland.”

Roseanna Cunningham MSP delivered a speech at the Scottish Resources Conference in Edinburgh on 27 September in which she stated, “we will introduce a deposit refund scheme on drinks containers in Scotland”. Afterwards, the share price of Tomra continued on the upward trajectory it has been on all year. But Iain Gulland and Colin MacBean must have exchanged a worried glance. They have to design and implement a scheme to satisfy the refreshingly clear political objective.

Less than a week later, Michael Gove announced to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester his own plans to consult on a deposit refund system targeted at plastic drinks bottles in England.

It looks simple enough, doesn’t it? After all, the carrier bag charge of 5p proved very effective in driving down the number of plastic bags left blowing about in the wind, so why not do the same with plastic bottles?

The theory is compelling. Giving discarded containers a value which can be reclaimed for cash should mean that there will always be someone prepared to pick up the containers to prevent them from accumulating as litter. But it is first worth asking whether any previous deposit refund schemes worked as smoothly as intended. Since the earliest schemes in the USA, a few fore-shortened political careers can be traced back to the schemes and, for some, the opportunities created for novel forms of fraud has led to prison. But overall, after applauding the careful implementation of modern schemes in Australia, this is indeed one way of changing behaviour and cleaning up the streets.

Oakdene Hollins first worked on Deposit Refund Schemes in 2005 and we are currently looking at using the same method to reduce the risk of other products - such as mattresses - being fly-tipped. Our oldest report on the issue can be found here; it recommended a focus on smaller plastic bottles and cans.

There is now a wider context of a standardised European-wide extended producer responsibility programme: an issue made more urgent by the efforts of so many Member States to introduce their own deposit refund systems thereby complicating trade issues and the single European market.

If Michael Gove is reshuffled to a bigger ministerial job, expect the proposal in England to fade away, leaving Ian Gulland and Colin MacBean with the 'Swedish' challenge of stopping a Scottish scheme from achieving a return rate exceeding 100%.