John Mayhew: Deposits on bottles and cans win-win situation

Deposit systems on bottles and cans are used around the world, from Croatia to California. Picture: Jane Barlow
Deposit systems on bottles and cans are used around the world, from Croatia to California. Picture: Jane Barlow
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CUTTING waste and litter is vital for Scotland says John Mayhew

Almost six years ago, the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Climate Change Act. The act included an important provision for a national deposit return system, where consumers pay a small deposit on drinks bottles and cans which is fully refunded when they are returned. This hasn’t been introduced yet, but the good news is that it’s now under serious consideration.

Deposit systems are used around the world, from Croatia to California, and as well as helping to tackle climate change they bring other benefits too. Most obviously, a deposit return system would help Scotland’s recycling industry. The system means that more containers of a better quality get recycled – better than everything being mixed up in kerbside recycling – which means more jobs across the country. And when more stuff gets recycled, it means fewer raw materials sent to landfill.

Household recycling rates are barely moving right now – in 2013 the Scottish rate went up just 1 per cent to 42 per cent. At this rate it’ll take us until 2043 to hit the 70 per cent target Scottish ministers want us to reach by 2025. There’s much more to recycling than just cans and bottles, but in Germany, which has had a deposit return system for more than a decade, 98.5 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled. It just works.

The idea of keeping materials flowing around Scotland is also known as the “circular economy”, where businesses reuse and repair old products, or recycle them more efficiently to cut costs and reduce waste. It’s essentially a modern interpretation of a prudent approach that previous generations would have taken for granted.

The next benefit is less litter. Many people recycle because they like to do the right thing, but others still don’t see the point. Paying a deposit means they’re literally throwing away their own money, and we know from elsewhere in the world that this changes behaviour. This is part of an attitude shift this country has already begun to embrace: seeing waste as an opportunity rather than a problem.

As well as making our towns and countryside less beautiful to live in, litter puts off visitors. Scotland is promoted as a clean green place to visit, but that’s quickly undermined if visitors see a beach or picnic site strewn with cans and bottles. That’s also why organisations like Surfers Against Sewage want a deposit refund system – they’re against all pollution of our seas and beaches, not just sewage.

The same Climate Change Act also included powers to bring in a charge for carrier bags, and this was introduced in October last year. When it was proposed, industry described it as “a frivolous distraction”, and fought it all the way. Six months on, though, disposable bag use is down by more than 80 per cent, helping to tackle both litter and waste. It’s just a normal part of life now, as a deposit return system will be.

Unlike the carrier bag charge, there is no cost even to the forgetful consumer with a deposit return system. Leave a can at home when you go to the shops? Take it back next time and still get your money back

Over the next few months you will hear alarmism from parts of industry that oppose a deposit system. Confusingly, some will come from companies which operate successfully in the international markets where deposit return systems already work well.

They know deposit return systems are basically self-funding, but they keep fighting them anyway. You will also hear grand-sounding schemes to deal with this issue that only amount to a bit more advertising and a lot of business as usual.

You may even hear industry messages echoed by organisations with worthy-sounding names which turn out to be funded by industry – that’s how they’ve resisted progress elsewhere in the world.

We want a clean, modern, progressive Scotland, with more jobs and less waste and litter. The drinks manufacturers know deposit refund systems work well elsewhere, but they’d rather not bother. They’re hoping Scottish Ministers haven’t got the bottle. I believe they’ll be proved wrong.

• John Mayhew is director of the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland