Ministers set to ‘water down’ bottle deposit scheme in costly mistake, warn green experts

Exclusive: ‘Strong possibility’ government will go for option that means only 7.4 billion containers being recycled instead of 23.7 billion

Jane Dalton
Thursday 19 August 2021 12:14 BST
A sculpture made from 2,500 plastic bottles found on beaches, rivers and streets was delivered to the government in 2019
A sculpture made from 2,500 plastic bottles found on beaches, rivers and streets was delivered to the government in 2019 (Getty Images)

The government could be about to significantly curb the scope of a scheme that pays consumers to return drinks bottles and cans for recycling, green experts are warning.

A coalition of environmental charities says ministers could be about to make a “costly and misguided mistake” that will allow plastic to continue to pollute the countryside and seas, devastating wildlife.

The start date of a planned deposit return scheme has been put back a year from 2023 to 2024.

And one option being “seriously” considered is restricting the scheme to drink containers under 750ml in size and excluding those sold in multipacks.

The Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition whose members include Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF, warns in a report today against the moves.

Under a deposit return scheme, the price of drinks in bottles or aluminium cans includes a small amount that goes towards recycling. The sum is returned to the buyer as an incentive to recycle when the empty container is returned.

In its election manifesto, the government promised a scheme this Parliament, with an original start date of 2023, but a government consultation document earlier this year said the coronavirus had forced a delay in rolling it out.

The consultation also considers restricting the scheme to smaller “on-the-go” containers rather than a wider “all-in” arrangement.

Paula Chin, chairwoman of the coalition’s resources and waste group, said: “The evidence is clear that an ‘all-in’ deposit return scheme will provide a huge boost to the environment, helping make our streets, parks and natural spaces cleaner and healthier.

“The government’s own figures show that there’s over £5bn in benefits by introducing this scheme in full.

“However, ministers are currently weighing up whether to back a watered-down proposal which would cover just a third of drinks containers placed on the market and which may possibly exclude glass containers.”

“As we face the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, it’s essential that the government back the strongest possible scheme for tackling litter without delay.”

In a first official consultation in 2019, public backing for a deposit return scheme was high, but held a fresh one because of the pandemic.

A decision on that is imminent, and the coalition says it understands there is a “strong possibility” the watered-down option will be adopted.

A scheme covering all types of containers is predicted to lead to 23.7 billion being recycled each year, against only 7.4 billion under the scaled-down option.

The Link coalition says an “all-in” scheme has been judged to have benefits of £11bn against only £3.5bn for an “on-the-go” model - calculated from reduced litter, carbon dioxide savings and the value of recovered materials.

The Link members also point out that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already indicated their support for the “all-in” model, with Scotland set to introduce their scheme next year, ahead of the rest of the UK.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the economy and society in unimaginable ways, with many people reassessing their values, decisions and priorities,” the government document said.

Lockdown has led to unprecedented levels of litter, evidence has suggested.

Of the 13 billion plastic drinks bottles sold each year, less than half are recycled, and around 700,000 are dropped into the environment every day.

Countries already operating deposit return schemes, such as Germany, have plastic bottle recycling rates of over 90 per cent, against 59 per cent in the UK.

The government has set a target of eliminating all ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042, with measures including a plastic packaging tax.

In 2019, Greenpeace created a giant bottle out of plastic bottles, delivering it to the government in an effort to persuade ministers to introduce a bottle return scheme.

The Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last month launched an inquiry into plastic waste, sayig just a third of the five million tonnes of plastic used in the UK is recycled.

Plastics that are not recycled are exported abroad, where some has been found being burnt or dumped, polluting waterways, not recycled.

A government spokesperson said: “The UK is a global leader in tackling plastic pollution. We are absolutely committed to delivering a deposit return scheme as quickly and effectively as possible to boost recycling, tackle plastic pollution and reduce litter, and our latest consultation reaffirms this commitment.”

She said the government was working very closely with industry and stakeholders on its deposit-return and packaging reforms.

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