A bottle deposit scheme for Wales

[Deposit-bearing Corona bottle. CC Gareth Clubb https://www.flickr.com/photos/60900922@N06/28765895952]

Half of all the drinks containers we buy end up being incinerated or buried in the ground. Doesn’t that seem like a waste to you?

Imagine if there was a way that we could see 90% of drinks containers either re-used or recycled. Imagine that this method was already being used in countries around the world, on four different continents, with massive public support.

Now imagine a Wales where drinks litter – one of the biggest components of litter that blights our communities right across Wales – vanished, almost overnight.

The method is one that was mastered right here in Wales. Many of you will have fond memories of the Corona bottle. Who didn’t delight as a child in finding a Corona[1] or Lowes[2] bottle and returning it to the vendor for the princely sum of 10p?!

At least, who above the age of 40 didn’t experience that delight. Because in the 1980s, this remarkably sustainable way of reusing glass bottles time and time again started to founder. It coincided with the realisation by the drinks companies that they could make more profit if they didn’t bother taking responsibility for the waste their industry generated.

And so it began – the wholesale destruction or burial of millions of tonnes of glass and plastic – all to ensure the shareholders of the drinks companies got that little bit extra of dividend.

Students of economics will be well versed in the theory of ‘free-riding’. In this case, the drinks companies used to take responsibility for their containers through organising their return, cleansing and re-sale. And now? Taxpayers bear the load every single step of the way.

It’s taxpayers who fund the recycling collection systems that pick up the empties that could be collected instead by a deposit system. It’s taxpayers who fund the incinerators and landfill sites that guzzle all the cans, bottles and cartons that could be collected by a deposit system. It’s taxpayers who pay for the litter bins to be emptied – bins full of drinks containers that could be collected by a deposit system. It’s us taxpayers who pay for the street sweepers and litter-pickers that pick up drinks containers that a deposit system would capture. It’s taxpayers who pay to send all that litter to landfill and incineration. It’s taxpayers who pay into a system of grants that fund community groups to pick up litter that could be collected instead by deposit systems.

And who pays for the drinks litter that ends up in the fields, hedgerows, mountains of Wales? The cans and bottles that swim down our streams and rivers and end up scattered gaily on our beaches and circulating endlessly in the oceans? Well, that would be society, which ends up paying through environmental damage and littered landscapes. You and me, cyfeillion.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can return to our more virtuous past by following a trail blazed by tens of other countries[3]. They’ve found that deposit-return systems for drinks containers can provide the following benefits:

  • Markedly reduced litter
  • Very high collection rates for drinks containers – up to 95% in some cases
  • Creating jobs and providing new business opportunities
  • Reducing resource use
  • Reducing the destruction or burial of valuable resources
  • Providing a revenue stream for community groups
  • Reducing injuries (by taking glass out of the general litter stream)

There are several different models of deposit systems in operation worldwide. The general principle is as follows:

  • Retailers pay distributors a deposit for each can or bottle purchased
  • Retailers then turn around and collect those deposits from consumers who purchase beverages
  • When a consumer returns a container for recycling, the retailer refunds the deposit to the consumer
  • The retailer then recoups that money from the distributor through returning the container, often with a small handling fee included
  • Because not all containers are returned, some unrefunded deposits remain in the system. This money is returned to the state

The costs of the system are thus borne by both the distributors of drinks containers and by consumers who choose to forgo their deposits.

It’s the reason the drinks industry lobbies furiously against new deposit schemes. Because some customers will decide not claim their deposit back, it has the effect of increasing the price of purchased drinks. And that, in turn, could depress the sales of these drinks, which has the effect of – you guessed it – reducing the profits of the drinks industry.

So we have the bizarre situation where the drinks lobby is desperately lobbying against deposit systems because it’s currently free-loading on society and wants us all to pay its costs. Gee thanks.

I mentioned that deposit systems enjoy huge public support. It’s one of the reasons that a deposit system’s introduction is absolutely inevitable here in Wales.

Friends of the Earth Cymru is one of a number of organisations that are coalescing to encourage politicians of all parties to actively work towards Wales becoming a show-case for sustainability through introducing deposits for drinks containers. We did it for carrier bags; we can do it for drinks. 

Here’s to a more sustainable future.

This article was first published in Exchange magazine, Bevan Foundation, Spring 2016

[1] Corona was established in Porth, Rhondda

[2] Lowes of Cardiff

[3] Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, Germany, Guam, Iceland, Israel, Kiribati, Micronesia, Netherlands, Norway, Palau, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Turks and Caicos, USA http://www.bottlebill.org/legislation/world.htm

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