Deposit return systems: a retro solution to plastic pollution?

A re-purposed solution from the past could boost recycling rates and keep plastics out of the environment.


Sir David Attenborough has added his voice to those calling for action to prevent plastic ending up in the oceans; he wants us all to simply cut down on buying and using products in single-use plastic containers. But plastic is everywhere; consumer-led solutions could take a long time to take effect.

Government action does help speed things along. For example, the EU Ecolabel – a voluntary scheme administered in the UK for Defra by Oakdene Hollins – has always excluded the use of microplastics, the tiny pieces of material commonly used in e.g. face scrubs which are ingested by marine life and passed along the food chain. The UK will be going a step further, say the Innovation Forum Business Brief editorial team in an article last month; we will be banning such plastics from cosmetic products manufactured from January 2018, and their sale from June 2018.

But there are calls for urgent wider action to drastically cut the use of plastic packaging use everywhere, with or without government intervention. For example, the Ellen McArthur Foundation – of which Oakdene Hollins is an associate member through its Centre for Remanufacturing and Reuse – has effectively brought businesses together to make joint commitments to deal more effectively with plastic waste. A collaborative approach from business will definitely help, but government intervention may also be required in the end.

But what about reusing an old idea? Deposit return schemes already exist in some parts of the world. Here in the UK there is consideration of reinstating the returnable deposit schemes of the past, not just for glass bottles but for all single use beverage containers including plastic. Oakdene Hollins was reporting on DRSs back in 2005.

The UK currently recycles around 57% of its plastic bottles, according to the IF Business Brief; in Denmark, which has a deposit return scheme, the rate is over 90%. A DRS requires Europe-wide, national and local government intervention to make it work effectively. Which is something a European container trade association has recently commissioned Oakdene Hollins to look in to.

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