What is a Deposit Return System?

This article is linked with an environmental campaign in the UK called ‘Message In A Bottle’. Learn more at: messageinabottle.org.uk

The system is a common strategy to dramatically increase recycling and reduce littering by adding value to a material that is currently treated as a valueless waste product. A small deposit of between 10–20p is added to the purchase costs of drinks containers and consumers are provided with ample opportunities to easily reclaim their deposit when they dispose of the product at collection points. This strategy has repeatedly proven to be an incredibly effective driver to changing behaviour, reducing littering and increasing recycling.

Currently 150 million people live with Deposit Return Systems across Europe and many more in multiple states in America and Australia.

What are the benefits of a Deposit Return System…

These systems can deliver recycling rates at almost 100%, preventing plastic and glass bottles and steel and aluminum cans from being littered. Container related litter makes up almost 40% of our litter (by volume).

Across the UK £1 Billion is spent on tackling litter and street cleaning. Effective actions and measures such as Deposit Return Systems and the 5p bag charge can help reduce litter and ease the economic burden litter places on local authorities and many businesses.

Deposit Return Systems are incredibly effective at changing perceptions; these used containers are not waste, but a valuable resource. This will help society’s transition into a circular economy.

Further financial saving can be found with increased public litter bin capacity. Removing bulky bottles and cans from bins will result in reduced requirements to empty the bins and reduced litter spilling from overflowing bins.

It takes far less energy to recycle or reuse a container than it does to extract, refine and process virgin materials into containers. Recycling metal containers can be 95% more energy efficient than making a new can. With these excellent energy savings come a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Behavioural change seepage is the term given to associated changes in behaviour outside of the primary desired change. For example, if people stop littering drinks containers as they have a value, will they stop littering crisp packets? We hope so!

Shops hosting reverse vending machines might expect an increase in footfall as people use the machines to reclaim their deposits, turning recyclers into customers.

Cafes, restaurants and bars that use products stored in containers will no longer need to pay for these containers to be processed as business waste. These containers will be kept in the Deposit Return System and processed by the operator, potentially delivering significant savings to these small businesses.

A Deposit Return System isn’t just another tax.

The deposit added to containers won’t cost you a penny assuming you return the container — it’s an incentive to encourage responsible behaviour. There is a clear choice, return the container and get the deposit back in full. Or don’t and lose your deposit. There is no such choice with taxes.

Where are Deposit Return System in place now?

Many people will remember that Deposit Return Systems were commonplace in the UK until the 1980s, when cheaper plastic bottles replaced their glass counterparts.

Throughout Europe approximately 150 million people live with Deposit Return Systems across Germany, Belgium, Croatia, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Hungary, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark. Elsewhere across the world there are successful systems in place in 10 States in the United States, Israel, Fiji, Canada and Australia. More Deposit Return Systems are planned, especially as the European Union is updating the waste directives within the Circular Economy Package.

Why do we need a Deposit Return System?

Drinks packaging litter makes up approximately 40% of all litter. Deposit Return Systems can deliver recycling rates of almost 100%, far beyond what the UK is achieving (we are currently struggling to achieve 45% of household recycling.)

In the UK we use an estimated 38.5 million plastic bottles and 59 million cans every day in the UK.

Deposit Return Systems keep these containers in the system, rather than allowing them to be littered or landfilled. As a result, the system secures high quality recyclate to help support and grow the UK’s recycling industry.

What is a Circular Economy?

A circular economy is an increasingly popular alternative to the outdated and unsustainable linear economy (make — use — dispose). The circular economy ensures resources are kept in use as long as possible, whilst providing facilities to receive the materials at the end of their first life, to be regenerated into another product. The EU is currently reviewing the Circular Economy Package and it could be introduced as early as 2017. Even if the UK leaves the EU, we could be required to adhere to the Circular Economy Package directives to gain access to the single market.

Why focus on bottles and cans?

All litter is important, but we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, as we will be waiting a long time for a solution that eliminates all litter.

It’s important to recognise that this counter-argument to Deposit Return Systems is often put forward by the packaging industry, and/or charities and NGOs supported by the packaging industry, as their members (raw material suppliers, packaging manufacturers, and manufacturers and retailers of packaged products) directly benefit from selling fresh containers.

Surfers Against Sewage’s supporters removed 20,000 single-use containers from UK beaches in 2016.

A Deposit Return System can almost eliminate plastic and glass bottle and can litter. These items make up almost 40% of all litter (by volume). It appears the packaging industry tactics are to stop this achievable and effective measure that might impact their members by trying to move the focus onto chewing gum and cigarette butt litter. These litter items definitely need tackling! And SAS has a very popular No Butts On The Beach campaign. However, it’s important to realise, that chewing gum litter often remains in situ and cigarette butt litter are notoriously hard to remove. The litter counts used by the packaging industry to demonstrate the need for butt and gum action don’t distinguish between freshly dropped litter and accumulated litter and can misrepresent the quantities of these items.

Surfers Against Sewage were part of a coalition of charities that successfully campaigned to introduce a similar measure, the 5p bag charges across the UK. Preliminary findings show the bag charge is delivering an 80% reductions in single-use bags given out in supermarkets, equating to 6 billion fewer bags given out in the first 8 months of the 5p charge. Economic incentives such as the bag charge and the Deposit Return System are effective at tackling litter!

Surfers Against Sewage also has live campaigns targeting cigarette litter, sanitary waste and pre-production plastic resin pellets.

What is the legal process for introducing a DRS?

In Scotland the Deposit Return System is referenced in the Climate Act and the election manifestoes for three political parties in the 2016 elections, including the ruling party in power, the Scottish National Party. It is now in the sitting government’s gift to introduce the system. We are asking our Scottish supporters to call on their Members of the Scottish Parliament to urge the government to introduce a Deposit Return System in 2017.

There have been some very supportive debates on how the Welsh Assembly Government might introduce a Deposit Return System and we are asking our Welsh supporters to call on their Assembly Members to request the Welsh Environment Minister includes Deposit Return System in their National Litter Strategy.

We are asking our Northern Irish supporters to call on their Members of the Legislative Assembly to request the Northern Irish Environment Minister to include the Deposit Return System in their National Litter Strategy.

We are asking our English supporters to call on their MP to request the Environment Minister includes a Deposit Return System in the National Litter Strategy.

The introduction of Deposit Return Systems in the UK would mirror current legislative processes and ratifications in Europe as part of the Circular Economy Package in the EU Waste Framework Directive.

Have You Got The Bottle?

Surfers Against Sewage are part of the Have You Got The Bottle campaign in Scotland. The campaign aim is to introduce a Deposit Return System in Scotland. There are 25 members including businesses, non-government organisations, community groups and charities such as the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, Friends of the Earth Scotland, the Ramblers and the Royal Zoological Society for Scotland. Together we represent more than 300,000 people in Scotland.


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:


Thanks for reading. We hope you found this article interesting. If you did, please hit the ♥ button below, and share it :)