Scotland's deposit-return scheme for cans and bottles will be worthwhile if it reduces littering – Stephen Jardine

“Consumers in Scotland are excited about the introduction of the deposit-return scheme.” That’s what the Minister for Green Skills and the Circular Economy, Lorna Slater, told me at an industry conference on the subject in Glasgow this week.

A small fortune in empties. Glasses and cans will come with a 20p refundable deposit from August next year (Picture: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images)
A small fortune in empties. Glasses and cans will come with a 20p refundable deposit from August next year (Picture: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images)

If you stopped people in the street to double check that I suspect you’d get one response: “What is the deposit-return scheme?” Even some shop owners and hospitality businesses at the conference were sketchy on the details but we are all going to have to get our head around this soon.

Next August, Scotland is set to become the first part of the UK to introduce a 20p charge for every single-use drinks container. Consumers can then get the money back when they return the empty bottle or can to a shop or reverse-vending machine.

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To be fair to Lorna Slater, the big push on communicating this to the public will take place next summer when the introduction of the scheme is pressing and imminent. Right now, the focus is on ensuring producers, retailers and hospitality businesses are registering with Circularity Scotland, the organisation set up by the industry itself to administer the scheme. The journey to do that requires product specifications, banking details and a maze of other information.

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While larger operators are well on the journey, for smaller companies the deposit-return scheme is a huge looming iceberg in an already choppy economic environment. Some fear they will be forced out of business by the accompanying costs, others despair at the work involved in implementing the scheme at a time when they should be focussed on rebuilding after the pandemic.

So why now? The scheme has already been pushed back once because of the pandemic but with set-up costs now being incurred, the Scottish Government says launch date on August 16 next year is immovable and non-negotiable.

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The bigger picture is the amount of waste in the environment. The deposit-return scheme aims to recycle 80 per cent of single-use containers, ensuring a drastic reduction in virgin plastic and glass use but also in the detritus littering Scotland.

The proof of the scheme’s effectiveness lies overseas. Deposit-return schemes already exist in the Netherlands, Germany and Slovakia as well as several states across Australia and America. Although the detail around charges and producer fees varies, in every territory the system has increased recycling and cut the amount of rubbish dumped – and, in a climate emergency, that can only be a good thing.

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Experts from these countries say the 20p charge is the magic bullet. That incentive will ensure the vast majority of single-use plastic, cans and glass will find its way through the circular economy by one route or another.

For consumers, next August it is going to be a shock and a big change, but once the initial surprise has passed, the deposit-return scheme is expected to become a habit in the same way most people now take their own bag to the supermarket.

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One thing is certain, doing nothing is not an option. Fifty years ago The Wombles were warning us not to litter but bottles and cans are a blight on the landscape of this beautiful country. If the bottle deposit-return scheme leads to more responsible behaviour, 20p seems a small price to pay.

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