A Deposit Return System in Action

Alasdair Steele, a Regional Rep for Edinburgh at Surfers Against Sewage travels to Norway to find out more about bottle and packaging deposit systems.

Early in 2016 I was invited to represent Surfers Against Sewage on a fact finding trip to Norway, organised by the Association for Protection of Rural Scotland (APRS), to look into the country’s highly successful deposit return system for plastic, cans and glass. The background to this is that APRS have launched a campaign, entitled “Have you got the bottle” to introduce a similar system in Scotland.

Related read: What is a Deposit Return System?

So 15 folk heading to Norway to find out more — a mix of environmental campaigners, retailers, political lobbyists and a trusted journalist.

Prior to the trip I had attended a discussion group organised by Keep Scotland Beautiful where both those for and against a deposit return system (DRS) were given the chance to have their say. I went along thinking it was a great idea, but by the end of the day, and having listened to some very slick anti-DRS speeches by people within the drinks and packaging industries, I left feeling rather unsure. There were some big questions that had remained unanswered and I did wonder whether this was something that SAS should be wholeheartedly supporting.

The drinks industry is a powerful force and well known for its anti-DRS stance. One of the speakers was the head of marketing for AG Barr — the company who produce Irn Bru, Scotland’s iconic and bright orange miracle hangover cure! He was a polished speaker and made three points in particular which nobody seemed able to answer:

We already have a kerbside recycling system in Scotland — there is no need for a DRS when plastics get collected anyway. All you are doing is double counting.
Irn Bru had been operating a deposit return system for their large glass bottles for decades, but had recently decided to shelve the system as levels or returns had fallen to such low levels.
Shopping habits are changing. DRS depends on people bringing back their empty bottles etc to the supermarket when they shop, but what if more and more people were shopping online…how would they dispose of their empties?

However, given the huge issue with marine litter, and plastics in particular, Surfers Against Sewage have decided to back the system, which is also supported by well over 80% of the Scottish population. But perhaps the most compelling counter argument to the slick industry spin-doctors is the fact that there are many successful DRS system operating elsewhere in the world — so the opportunity to see one in action was seized upon.

Norway is similar to Scotland in terms of size and population distribution — a couple of large cities but large areas that are sparsely populated, which makes collecting empty bottles a challenge, so it was the perfect place to visit. The DRS has been running since 1999 and has a recycling rate of over 95% — way above what we manage in Scotland.

We started off visiting a number of retailers where customers could return their empties. Our first visit was a small convenience store in Lillehammer (just outside Oslo). We were shown a collection machine, which was about the size of a drinks vending machine. Customers put their cans, glass and plastics into the machine and it sorted them all out prior to collection by the recycling company. The customer had the choice of a return of about 8p for the smaller bottles and 18p for bigger ones, or if they were feeling altruistic they could press a button which gave the money to the Red Cross, whilst at the same time entering them into a multi million Krone lottery draw. Everyone’s a winner!

But the single shop retailers who had come along on the trip were shifting uneasily as the machine manufacturer extolled its virtues…..they were concerned about the size of the machine and felt there was no way that it would fit in their shops. It seemed we had maybe started in a shop that was a bit too big, so our next visit was to a petrol station where, instead of a recycling machine, customers could return their empties but they were just stored in large (recycled!) plastic bags and these were collected once a week. This, combined with the fact that there is also a smaller size of machine, which is about the size of a lottery machine, calmed the furrowed brows of the retailers. All were happy again.

We then went to a large supermarket to see bigger collection points in action. It was impressive to see everyone coming in and recycling their plastics and glass and the sheer volume of material collected was staggering. It was clear that returning empties was an integral part of a visit to the shops for the locals.

We then went out to the collection centre, based on the outskirts of Oslo and operated by Infinitum, who run the DRS system in Norway. We saw the plant where all the packaging is delivered and sorted before going off to be recycled.

The plant was huge — the machinery separated the various materials — even being able to separate different coloured plastics. The process allows them to recycle plastic bottles an average of 17 times. And recycling one plastic bottle saves enough energy to charge your mobile phone for a staggering 3 weeks.

When we sat down with the MD of the company we were able to ask all the tricky questions that had been bothering us. He had set up the system, operated it for over 15 years and was able to give us genuine answers based on reality not theory. And here’s the thing…there really is no down side. So back to my burning questions from earlier…

  1. Why have DRS when you have kerbside recycling. The two can and should work together. The largest offender is plastic bottles and 70% of drinks within containers are consumed away from the home. So the kerbside system requires you to bring your packaging home with you each time you use a bottle. The average DRS system has a recycling rate of over 95% (a staggering 98.5% in Germany) whereas the stats for kerbside recycling are around half that level. And as for the argument that all you are doing is removing valuable plastics from the kerbside collection and impacting on its viability — this doesn’t appear to be true….the reduced amount of kerbside recycling does indeed mean reduced revenues, but this is balanced by the fact that collection trucks can travel further so less are needed. There may be a reduction in manpower which impacts on jobs, but this is more than compensated for by the jobs created by the DRS itself.
  2. Changing shopping habits. Like any business Infinitum needs to move with the times and adapt to changing preferences. The solution to internet shopping is very simple — the vans that deliver the food simply collect the recycling from the houses they deliver to and return it to the store. This is well established in a number of countries and works perfectly well.
  3. And what about poor old Irn Bru’s bottle return system. The view was that this was very different to a dedicated DRS system. Irn Bru only offered a limited number of bottle return points, but perhaps most importantly, the main reason for its demise was people in the UK now prefer to buy plastic bottles rather than heavy 1.5 litre glass bottles. Buying habits have changed and that is the reason why Irn Bru’s system became uneconomic.

It was a great trip — seeing the system working so well, and the impact it has on the Norwegian environment, has left me convinced that we should have a deposit return system in Scotland.

What I concluded:

  1. Deposit return systems definitely work, and there really is no reason not to have one.
  2. It helps teach people the impact of littering in the same way that our beach cleans do. Go visit Norway…you wont see any plastic bottles in the towns, or even on the beaches…anything that is left has a value so somebody will pick it up and take it to be recycled.
  3. It’s all about habit — DRS is second nature to Norwegians now in the same way that kerbside recycling and not using single use plastic bags is to us. If we can get the politicians to bring DRS in then it will make a huge difference very quickly.
  4. The drinks and packaging industries are talking nonsense. Ignore them.

Help us with our campaign!

If you’re interested in this subject and want to learn more, Surfers Against Sewage are calling for Deposit Return Systems to be introduced in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Our aim is to educate the public, and via our poll and social media actions, to present evidence of public support for this radical system shift to trap plastic in the economy, not the environment. Here’s how you can help:

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