Deposit return system ‘could make £9m for retailers’

Norway and Estonia recycle nearly twice as many empties as Scotland. File picture: Contributed
Norway and Estonia recycle nearly twice as many empties as Scotland. File picture: Contributed
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A bottle and can deposit return system could emulate the plastic carrier bag success - so let’s all get involved in the discussions, writes Adrian Roper

• This article was written in response to an opinion piece in The Scotsman on August 14 by the Scottish Retail Consortium

The debate about a deposit return system for cans and bottles in Scotland - where customers pay a small deposit and get it refunded in full when they return their empties - has gone on for more than ten years, but it’s coming to a conclusion now.

We’re not talking about the kind of one-manufacturer, one-material system that Barrs used to operate for their glass bottles.

Our members who took part can tell you that fewer and fewer people knew that that system even existed, which wouldn’t be the case with a national system.

The proposals are for the kind of modern and efficient deposit system, used across much of Europe and elsewhere, one that covers glass, cans and plastic.

There’s a myth going around that retailers are all opposed to this idea, and another myth that it would be bad for business more broadly.

Just as on the carrier bag charge, which we are campaigning to extend to small shops in England, there are many supporters.

In fact, the NFRN (Federation of Independent Retailers), welcomed the decision by Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham at the end of June to commission the design of a deposit return system for Scotland.

Our members are responsible retailers, and want to operate in communities not blighted by littered cans and bottles.

We want to stock better products, more of which are made from recycled materials, and with cans and bottles that will need a deposit system to get good quality aluminium and plastic back into the system.

Modern deposit systems work well both for retailers and for the public in places like Norway or Estonia, where almost twice as many empties are recycled as we see in Scotland.

The circular economy means more jobs are retained locally, too. All in all, we think all these benefits should come to Scotland too, including to retailers.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have concerns about the details, and some of those details are pretty important to our members.

Those modern deposit systems pay retailers a small handling fee for every empty can and bottle they collect: we want to make sure that fee is at the very least sufficient to make collection cost neutral.

It could be much better than that, though.

The Scottish Government has already published figures showing the net benefit to retailers of a deposit system could be up to £8.7m a year, and the NFRN wants to make sure that small retailers see their fair share of that income boost.

We also want to make sure that shops that don’t sell all three materials - cans, plastic and glass - can choose not to accept materials they don’t sell, as happens elsewhere.

Efficiency of collection is also going to be important. Small shops have a real problem with the reliability of trade waste collections in some parts of Scotland, and a system where you can request a same-day collection via your phone, as in Norway, would be great to see.

And the system will need to work just as easily for retailers who don’t even take card payments, which includes many of our members, especially in rural areas.

We also believe that smaller shops, where space is at a real premium, should be able to opt out if they wish. In Norway, those below 200 square metres can do so.

In Lithuania, the figure is 300 square metres. What should the size limit be in Scotland? Our members will have views on that, and we are confident they’ll be heard by the Scottish Government.

These are all important issues, and there are definitely good and bad ways to implement a deposit system, but we know what the good ones look like, especially in Scandinavia and the Baltics.

That’s why our counterparts in the Lithuanian Retailers Association - where deposits were introduced last year - have said “with absolute confidence that it was the right thing to do”.

We are hopeful that more of our members will visit these countries and talk to their counterparts there: it’s hard for small businesses to take the time out, but nothing is better at both dispelling myths and identifying best practice.

The time has passed for claims that a fully refundable deposit is a tax on the consumer, or that retailers won’t be able to make money from a deposit system.

Instead, the responsible thing for retailers to do is to take part constructively in the discussions that are going on, to accept the clear benefits for the public, for the environment, and for business, and to make the case for a Scottish system designed to work well for our sector.

If we all take part positively in these discussions, we will get a system we can all be proud of for Scotland.

And then, as with the carrier bag charge, in a couple of years we will look back and wonder why anyone opposed the idea of deposit return.

• Adrian Roper is Head of Public Affairs & Communications at the NFRN