Analysis: In our throwaway society, can people be persuaded to collect empty bottles again?


Michael Heseltine was just one among generations of schoolchildren who used to supplement their pocket-money by collecting and re-selling empty bottles of pop.

The man who went on to be Deputy Prime Minister and amass a £220m fortune first revealed his entrepreneurial streak as a pupil at Shrewsbury School in the 1940s. He would prowl its grounds looking for discarded bottles, which he would return to a nearby shop to reclaim the tuppence deposit on each.

Bottle deposit schemes began to vanish in the 1960s when more and more soft drinks were sold in plastic containers. This meant batches of drinks – in plastic and glass containers – could be shipped greater distances from centralised factories. And it became less practical to take an empty back to a shop, which once would have returned it to a bottling plant.

Moreover, changing trends meant people were visiting supermarkets rather than the corner shop to which they could bring back the bottles.

Now, the Environment minister Michael Meacher has asked officials to look at the pros and cons of the Government throwing its weight behind a revival of the schemes.

When they first began to disappear, there was uproar from members of the public, many of whom had developed frugal habits in the years after the war.

Four days after the launch of Friends of the Earth in 1971, the environmental group organised its first publicity stunt by collecting thousands of "non-returnable" bottles and dumping them at Schweppes' headquarters in London with a plea to the drinks giant not to "schhhhh on Britain".

The campaign failed but, 30 years later and with six billion glass containers produced every year in Britain, deposit bottles could make an unexpected return.

This is the latest government investigation into ways of reducing the mass of domestic waste being tipped into a limited number of landfill sites. Ideas floating around in Whitehall include making shoppers pay 9p for every plastic bag they use and charging families £1 for every sack of rubbish they leave for collection.

As ministers admit, all such moves require a cultural shift among British consumers, many of whom are now inured to a "throwaway society".

Some deposit schemes do survive, notably in Scotland where many Irn-Bru drinkers are refunded 20p a bottle when they return their empties. But such initiatives are the exception rather than the rule.

Mr Meacher's civil servants will be examining the experiences of countries including Denmark, which has banned one-trip beer containers. However, they may also consider New York City, where the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has abandoned the system of repaying the five-cent deposit on bottles and cans returned for recycling because of the falling price of glass.

In Britain, advocates of the deposit idea say that it is the most environmentally friendly way of recycling some of the 15kg of glass used by each person in a year. They argue that washing and refilling bottles consumes far less energy than recycling glass.

But critics retort that the same problems that sealed the fate of deposit bottles 30 years ago also apply in the 21st-century. They also say the amount of money that could be offered for returning bottles would be too small to encourage affluent consumers to change their habits.

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